No Exit, Postmodern Style

Theorizing 21c

No Exit, Postmodern Style

Mark Fisher. Capitalist Realism, Is There No Alternative? Winchester: Zero Books, 2009. 92 pp.

Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, Is There No Alternative? engages in schadenfreude of a most peculiar kind: it is deeply gratifying to read Fisher’s excoriating rebuke of contemporary capitalist culture and his lucid description of the frustrations of those caught within the insipid logic of administrations and bureaucracies or the self-abasement of management to meet superficial outcomes; yet, the misfortune we take pleasure in is our own. Indeed, Fisher’s dynamic style, his Žižekian attunement to the absurdities of postmodern culture delivered with the same ironic wit, and his insightful use of film and popular culture to demonstrate his points, act as palliatives to the supremely pessimistic view that he ultimately roots in the structure of capitalism. It is this irony, this double-stance, that makes Capitalist Realism both an important work and one to be treated with a critical distance. On the one hand, it accurately locates the current feelings of impotence to effect meaningful change to the anomie engendered through capitalism and neoliberalist economics in particular, the resignation toward the undeniable intrusion of a reductive capitalist logic in every sphere of society. On the other hand, Fisher demonstrates partial signs of succumbing to what Walter Benjamin called Left melancholia. As Wendy Brown describes it, “left melancholy is Benjamin’s unambivalent epithet for the revolutionary… who is, finally, attached more to a particular political analysis or ideal—even to the failure of that ideal—than to seizing possibilities for radical change in the present… [It] represents…a refusal to come to terms with the particular character of the present” and “signifies, as well, a certain narcissism with regard to one’s past political attachments and identity.”[1] While it is unfair to describe Fisher as a revolutionary—he’s a cultural theorist—and while he does acknowledge and makes efforts to accommodate the unique character of the present, the sustained exasperation of the way capitalism has infected our life world and even our fantasies, in part derived from his own private experience as an educator, and the symptoms he points out everywhere of this decrepitude leads him to a curious retro-Marxism that seems incommensurate with the times he so lucidly describes.

At issue for Fisher is what he calls capitalist realism, a concept deeply indebted to Frederic Jameson: that sense that we have entered a stage of capitalism that precludes our ability to imagine any alternative to this system. Indeed, he argues, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than an end to capitalism. For Fisher, there are three primary reasons for this state of affairs. The first is that, unlike when Frederic Jameson famously argued in 1984 for postmodernism as a cultural dominant, today’s state of capitalism does not have a feasible political alternative. It was in the 1980s that neoliberal economics asserted itself at the political level through Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, dismantling unions, deregulating the market, establishing right-to-work states and capitalizing on flexible accumulation to make obsolete, once and for all, the mobilization of a proletariat capable of sustained revolutionary unity. In other words, postmodernism has been so intensified as to generate a qualitative change that the term capitalist realism is meant to capture. There is no political alternative by which to ideologically, if not in practice, challenge the capitalist order. In the nineties, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton confirmed the cooptation of the left into the logic of neoliberalism by adhering to the belief in the inevitability of so-called globalization and supply-side economics. A second distinction is in the obsolescence of postmodernism’s challenge to modernism. Where postmodernism embraced difference and plurality, parody, and complicitous critique (to use Linda Hutcheon’s phrase), it now takes for granted this challenge and itself becomes, along with modernist styles, a frozen aesthetic, an expressionless commodity decorating the background of our life world. “Capitalism,” as he so eloquently puts it, “is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics.”[2] Lastly, an entire generation has now been born following the collapse of the Berlin Wall. This means that for those who have only ever known a world of capitalist totalizations, there is no actual alternative to point to. Instead, individuals are “precorporated”: that is, their desires and fantasies are fabricated through a sustained, ubiquitous onslaught of advertising campaigns which makes subversion merely one more fad to be absorbed into the eternal present of the culture industry.

This precorporation operates at the level of the dissenter as well. One can only look on with a cynical distance, maintaining a knowledge and belief in the evils of capitalism as the only feasible stance, a kind of weary resignation, even as one participates in the very structures of capitalism. Holding a retirement savings plan, investing in education accounts for one’s children, or purchasing any number of forms of insurance signal our participation in the very thing we abhor. “What needs to be kept in mind,” Fisher notes, “is both that capitalism is a hyper-abstract impersonal structure and that it would be nothing without our co-operation.”[3] Indeed, this intensified power of absorption is, for Fisher, a key distinction with postmodernism as Jameson used the term. Where Jameson argued for a “cognitive mapping” to navigate the vertiginous spaces of postmodern culture, Fisher suggests such mapping can only take place within a predetermined capitalist topography, making such a notion obsolete. He notes the capacity for capitalism to flourish off of the anti-capitalism endemic to it: “so long as we believe (in our hearts) that capitalism is bad, we are free to continue to participate in capitalist exchange.”[4] Thus, in another variation on his definition, Fisher says that capitalist realism is a “pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.”[5] The comprehensive naturalization of inequities and destruction fostered by capitalism—poverty, famine, war, as if these things were unavoidable and simply the way of the world regardless of political economy—also engenders a “reflexive impotence,” this sense that one can’t do anything about it except to acknowledge that it is bad.

Fisher points to the pervasive symptoms of disaffection in this world of capitalist realism via the interpretation of culture, particularly film and music. An examination of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men opens his book, providing the outward expression of a generalized affect disorder and terminal resignation at the heart of the contemporary order: “The world that [Children of Men] projects seems more like an extrapolation or exacerbation of ours than an alternative to it. In its world, as in ours, ultra-authoritarianism and Capital are by no means incompatible: internment camps and franchise coffee bars co-exist.”[6] The anxiety that the film expresses—mysteriously humanity is unable to reproduce in the dystopian world of the film and therefore sits on the brink of extinction—is the anxiety of capitalist realism. For Fisher, the film primarily asks, “how long can a culture persist without the new?”[7] This anxiety, which he will locate everywhere in our lived experience, “cries out to be read in cultural terms.”[8] This signals Fisher’s primary tactic of seeing the epiphenomena of capitalist realism primarily as an organizer of unhealthy subjectivity, a generator of the disenfranchisement and alienation of the individual in the grips of a monstrous, faceless, uncaring system. Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, the “alternative” or “independent” rock band, is exemplary of the tortuous situation we find ourselves in: Cobain’s directionless rage and awareness of his own precorporation, his self-realization of being a cliché in a culture of the spectacle, is, in fact, the situation of each individual and all modes of dissent. Hip hop, Frank Miller and James Ellroy are other eclectic examples of a stark and unflinching view of the pathologies of capitalist realism—raging against the machine, where the machine is nowhere to be found, but everywhere to be felt.

The critique of capitalist realism as an attack on the subject can be most keenly understood, according to Fisher, in the routinization of affect disorders. For instance, one of the cultural symptoms of dispossession that Fisher notes through his experience as a teacher at a Further Education college in England, is the astonishing rates of depression, particularly among young people. Fisher notes that this pervasive depression has taken on a new, hedonic character: rather than students being unable to find pleasure, they instead can’t do anything but pursue pleasure compulsively. “In large part,” he explains, “this is a consequence of students’ ambiguous structural position, stranded between their old role as subjects of disciplinary institutions and their new status as consumers of services.”[9] In the former situation, they are surveilled and tested regularly, subject to abstract authoritarian controls governed by the relics of an old, panoptic form of education; but this Foucauldian brand of homogeneous power has altered because of the latter situation, where students inhabit an amorphous consumer space where they exercise “free choice” as consumers seeking ephemeral satisfactions. These choices take place in an environment of what Fisher calls a “business ontology,” the presumption that everything can and ought to be subordinated to a business strategy. Students are consumers of education, just as patients are consumers of health care or the pious are consumers of religion—one finds the commodity that seems most appealing. Students who fail need not be overly concerned because the system requires them to populate classrooms for the university to be economically viable. The result is not a nurturing of a will-to-achieve, but a slackening of will; rather than a deepening of intellectual investment, there is a generalized apathy and boredom at intellectual labor. The consumer seeks entertainment not knowledge, requires a certificate to authenticate capability and not knowledge to demonstrate a skill. This is itself reinforced through the technologies of assimilation, the pervasive virtual community that everywhere demands individuals to be connected through social media, texting or gaming, for fear of confronting an intolerable isolation or missing an event—no matter how vague or superficial the event is. Technologies as instruments of capitalist realism breed shallow conformity at scales previously unknown. With characteristic drollery, Fisher states: “To be bored simply means to be removed from the communicative sensation-stimulus matrix of texting, YouTube and fast food; to be denied, for a moment, the constant flow of sugary gratification on demand.”[10] This communicative sensation-stimulus matrix lacks any authority, fosters anonymity even while forming fleeting identifications, and supplants concentration with frenetic, ceaseless distraction. “The carceral regime of discipline,” Fisher concludes, “is being eroded by the technologies of control, with their systems of perpetual consumption and continuous development.”[11] Not even the home or the family can supply an adequate center of discipline since households require both parents to work, if indeed the household remains intact, and increasingly defer disciplinarian action to teachers or care-givers. Thus, hedonic depression suggests a breakdown in the logic of capitalist realism, an intrusion of the Real into the fabricated and illusory happiness in the virtual community of consumers promulgated by advertisers and PR people.

The ideological mask that obfuscates the gravity of this steadily increasing pathology of capitalist life is in what Fisher calls the privatization of stress. The privatization of stress refers to the reduction of mental disorders to mere chemical imbalances in the brain whose socio-political organization and instantiation within a dysfunctional economic system is hidden by the perpetuation of the view that any disorder is strictly within one’s head or a result of family environment. In other words, the individual bears the responsibility for his/her own disorder. The discussions concerning the astonishing rash of spree killings in the U.S. over the last two decades, for instance, are invariably reduced to a debate concerning gun control and better screening of mental illness. What remains absent from these discussions is the degree to which socio-economic order facilitates such psychopathic violence. If a dysfunctional family is known to cause a range of aberrant behaviors and affect disorders, then the dysfunction of capitalism should also be central to a diagnosis of disease found in such significant numbers and at such significant scales. “It goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated,” Fisher argues, “but this says nothing about their causation. If it is true, for instance, that depression is constituted by low serotonin levels, what still needs to be explained is why particular individuals have low levels of serotonin. This requires a social and political explanation…”[12] Rather than treat the cause of the disorder, which would be to recognize the sociological character of mental disorders, capitalist society instead offers medications to re-balance neurotransmitters or anxiolytics to ease the stress generated by precarious job security, uncertain social relations and especially the culture of fear that saturates our media space. Needless to say this reinforces and justifies the cult of individuality that capitalism depends upon—inalienable rights to the pursuit of pharmacologically induced happiness—and refocuses responsibility on taking one’s meds. But it also, of course, legitimates the authority and power of the pharmaceutical industry.

All of this, Fisher contends, is rooted in neoliberalism, the mode of capitalism that has succeeded the Cold War, whose promise of the liberation of the individual from what Fisher calls the Nanny State through consumer choice, the faith in the internal regulation of the market through a Smithian invisible hand (in turn requiring a deregulation of banking and trade), and the glorification of the decrease of inefficiencies by the elimination of the State “middleman” has proven to be a lie. In fact neoliberalism has only created a new, more virulent form of subjectification, bureaucratic inefficiency and gross inequity. Authority has become increasingly decentralized and faceless, while responsibility is redirected onto individuals who must make the proper consumer choice to act ethically or be happy. The consumer ought to recycle or purchase fair trade goods, thereby dictating ethical and responsible conduct through purchasing choice—which, of course, converts ethics into an act of exchange and averts focus on root systemic causes. Capitalism, then, sheaths its instrumental reasoning, its dehumanizing and dispassionate mode of operating exclusively for profit, and ultimately the contradictions that arise from these instrumental ends with a façade of social responsibility and empathy.

Fisher, therefore, attacks what he calls Really Existing Capitalism as a counter to this neoliberal fantasy. Really Existing Capitalism refers to the disparity between what we know to be true of corporate greed or financial speculations and the dissemination of the spectacle of capitalism, that image of capitalism fabricated through PR and advertising that projects an image of itself as ethical and responsible. Fisher instead shows that in fact Really Existing Capitalism increases bureaucratic inefficiencies and the absurd rationality of administration and business ontology; it in fact reproduces precisely what neoliberals found so abhorrent in Stalin’s socialism, which is the foil, as it were, to the neoliberal philosophy. Soviet Russia generated a fundamental contradiction between the official State versions of reality and the actual lived experience of those within the Soviet Union. By borrowing from Žižek’s Lacanian diagnosis of culture through the “big Other,” Fisher shows that the same contradiction in Really Existing Socialism exists in Really Existing Capitalism. The “big Other,” the nebulous “They” that organizes the collective fictions that everyone is structured by, projects a view of capitalism that is deeply concerned with global warming or mass starvation, seeks the eradication of disease or the empowering of colonialized cultures through smart technologies. But the reality that we all know to be the case by virtue of our lived experience is, in fact, the opposite: greater environmental destruction, pandemics and increased poverty among colonized subjects. “Capitalism’s rapacity,” Fisher notes, “depends upon various forms of sheathing. 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.”[13] In other words, the basic contradiction of capitalism is that, internal to its logic, is the need for anti-production, the ideological sheathing through PR, branding and advertising of the sheer brutality and monstrousness of a system that demands ceaseless, malignant growth.

In perhaps the most gratifying critique of this phenomenon, Fisher points to the endless, tedious evaluations of labor performance. Labor is, by its nature, resistant to quantification. For instance, recently our department had to rewrite our tenure and promotion guidelines according to performance. Many weighty and meaningful questions arose: is a short story the equivalent of a scholarly article? What if the scholarly article was published in a middling journal but the story was published in a reputable but commercial magazine? How many poems add up to a book publication? Is a haiku equivalent to a four page lyric poem? Should research in preparation for a class count as teaching or research? Is one’s work with a faculty council service or teaching? But the importance of answering these enriching questions is not because it clarifies performance, but because it clarifies the placement of activities in the proper metric by which we evaluate ourselves. In other words, the actual labor is secondary to the perceived labor performance. This can then be used to provide an assessment to administrators who either confirm or deny the self-assessment based not on the actual produced material but on the perception of our performance we provided. Fisher describes it thus:

the drive to assess the performance of workers and to measure forms of labor… has inevitably required additional layers of management and bureaucracy. What we have is not a direct comparison of workers’ performance or output, but a comparison between the audited representation of that performance and output. Inevitably, a short-circuiting occurs, and work becomes geared towards the generation and massaging of representations rather than to the official goals of the work itself.[14]

Now, of course, one is in the irresolvable dilemma of deciding if performance measures are measuring some kind of labor or are they in fact determining the nature of the labor to be performed so that there is a validation of the pre-ordained goal or outcome. While layers and layers of bureaucracy try to capture this in finer and finer detail, greater inefficiencies arise and, of course, apathy and lassitude creep in.

What Fisher is delineating is the degree to which we become entrapped within the contradictory logic of capitalism at the level of labor and routine as well as through our, at best, weary yet frustrated resignation, at worst, private pathologies. While Fisher appeals to Marxist critiques of post-Fordist capitalism, specifically such figures as Christian Marazzi, Richard Sennett and David Harvey, who in their various ways point to the deleterious effects on individuals and the family unit of flexible accumulation, mobile and temporary work-forces, just-in-time production, and the other supple and adaptable modes of generating capital, his overwhelming method is to examine the subjective experience of our lived situation within this system. In a world in which everything is reducible to commodity exchange, where emotions and behavioral responses are scripted through a media semiotics that pre-exists the individual’s entrance into the world and thereby precorporates him or her and where old ideologies have been conquered by incorporation and assimilation, turned into fashionable pastiches or retro-trends (think the Hipster, who recreates the form of the Beat generation counter-culture with no historical consciousness of the Beat generation or their political position): in a world such as this, there is no exit. The subject is captive, fully interpellated, and impotent; s/he seeks artificial forms of distraction and stimulation to mask the despair and loneliness of postmodern life—not a modernist world of the existential void or the abyss of forlornness, but a capitalist realist world of super-saturation, excess and demands for ceaseless pleasure. In such a world, to use what is by now a cliché, resistance is futile.

Or is it? Despite this postmodern no exit mentality, Fisher offers, if only vaguely and briefly, possible modes of resistance. What the examination of the culture of capitalist realism reveals is the incessant anxiety, the daily pathologies and affect disorders, that structure life today. But it also points to the eruption of the Real in the ideological, hyperreal façade of capitalism. The dysfunction of capitalism cannot be contained: “what is required is that effect be connected to structural cause.”[15] In particular, Fisher locates three spaces in the Real that intrude into the reality capitalism fashions for us and holds some potential to rip through the pasteboard mask of capitalist ideology: the environment, mental health and the inefficiencies of bureaucracy. As we have seen, Fisher focuses on the latter two, which are far less recognizable and contested. Because of the ubiquity of mental disorders, Fisher believes that one can politicize the disaffection of the people: “We must convert widespread mental health problems from medicalized conditions into effective antagonisms. Affective disorders are forms of captured discontent; this disaffection can and must be channeled outwards, directed towards its real cause, Capital.”[16] What form this would take and how this could be practically implemented as a strategy of resistance is not entirely clear, but the idea is certainly an intriguing one. In some sense, one might imagine that we alter the emphasis from an over-pathologizing, which justifies a medicalization of problems to be governed by insurance and pharmaceutical companies, toward seeking the socio-economic structure that induces imbalances in brain chemistry or fosters environments of stress. In addition to this mobilization of affective disorders, the transformation of bureaucracies from a top-down form—a form admonished by neoliberal proponents as a necessary evil of socialist organization—to a decentralized form has, in fact, produced more bureaucratic inefficiencies and belies the view that neoliberal economics reduces bureaucracy and operates more efficiently. In other words, if one of the central promises of neoliberalism, namely to enhance efficiencies through the elimination of bureaucracies, is demonstrably false, then striking against this false promise by reference to the commonly experienced frustrations of people through, say, telephone call-services, endless consumer surveys or performance self-assessments can unite people toward a common goal of change. For Fisher, one can challenge bureaucratic anonymity and dispersal of responsibility, with its emphasis on self-evaluation, by forming a “new (collective) political subject.”[17]

What Fisher attempts to show in his book is that the illusory claim by neoliberals to have removed the big Other by dispersing control and freedom through the consumer and his/her individual choice has, in fact, merely reproduced a more insidious and problematic form of the big Other. In a passage analyzing Kafka, he makes this point clear: “the supreme genius of Kafka was to have explored the negative atheology proper to Capital: the centre is missing, but we cannot stop searching for it or positing it. It is not that there is nothing there—it is that what is there is not capable of exercising responsibility.”[18] Fisher sees this typified, humorously enough, in the TV show Supernanny, in which the Supernanny must come into a household that has given unbridled freedom to children to pursue pleasure. The result is an increasingly tyrannical demand on the parents who only seek to mollify the children with more pleasure. In essence, the big Other as the position from which Law projects, where prohibitions are announced, is transformed into an imperative to enjoy, giving the appearance of failed parenting at the level of impeding enjoyment. “Supernanny,” Fisher points out, “has to sort out problems of socialization that the family can no longer resolve. A Marxist Supernanny would of course turn away from the troubleshooting of individual families to look at the structural causes which produce the same repeated effect.”[19] Thus, he argues, a reinstitution of the big Other is necessary. While advocating for some authoritarian or disciplinarian regime via the State has proven to be undesirable, some form of stability through a mobilization of the state is necessary. Unfettered pleasure-seeking, which capitalism promotes because it lubricates the structural machinery of Capital, must be reined in.

In contrast to postmodern or post-structuralist thought, Fisher insists that the left should reconceive itself by reinvigorating Marxism and seek not to establish the state as some monolithic regulatory organization, but to “subordinate the state to the general will.”[20] In a manner similar to his claim that we must make “effective antagonisms” of affect disorders, Fisher eludes any clarification of the general will, instead admitting that it is a concept needing “resuscitating,” but would entail a conception of the public as something other than an “aggregation of individuals and their interests.”[21] In other words, the postmodern push toward localized modes of dissent, deconstructions of identity by embracing difference and plurality, and a suspicion of grand narratives should be eschewed for a revival of the grand narrative of Marxism, with its focus on the economic base: “we need to reassert that, far from being isolated, contingent problems, these [symptoms of the failures of a capitalist worldview] are all the effects of a single systemic cause: Capital.”[22] Indeed, “Anti-capitalism must oppose Capital’s globalism with its own, authentic, universality.”[23] He goes on to briefly describe a set of contestatory tactics that, strategically might “begin by building on the desires which neoliberalism has generated but which it has been unable to satisfy,” such as cutting down on bureaucracy, eliminating certain forms of labor (in particular the excessive auditing), organizing labor protests to specifically target management, and collectively managing the rationing of desires (although he admits what form this collective management would take requires more thought). Subordinating the state to the general will would be the new goal of a Marxist revolution, but would require a series of small steps to effectuate the change in what is otherwise a seemingly intractable situation. By locating and attacking even the tiniest hole in the ideological tapestry of capitalist realism, a chain reaction might occur that can rend the fabric entirely.

At the outset of this review, I noted that Fisher lapses into a quasi-left melancholia, a kind of dogmatism of political analysis and call for change rooted in an unwillingness to recognize the peculiar conditions of the present. In fact, Fisher does spend considerable time specifying what is unique about the present in terms of diagnosing the dysfunction of capitalism in the realm of today’s culture and how it points to the underlying economic cause. He challenges the political strategies of postmodernists by noting how the situation has changed since their pronouncements. He particularly notes how the financial crisis of 2008 is a tarnishing of the veneer of capitalism and offers the opportunity of effecting the changes or challenges to neoliberalism that could snowball into a significant transformation. And because he doesn’t equate neoliberalism with capitalist realism—the former is the current manifestation of capitalist realism—he is aware of the contingent nature of capitalist realism, that it is not a fixed or universal system but one that can undergo historical alterations from within its own systemic logic. After all, he points out, neoliberalism came about as a kind of political revolution in the late 1970s, which suggests that a counter measure to it is feasible. But despite all of this self-awareness, the rhetorical force of Fisher’s argument, the exasperation and frustration that is voiced in his acerbic wit, belie the somewhat antiquated alternatives he ends up offering. Indeed, the very premise of this slim book, that the end of the world is easier to imagine then the end of capitalism, with its numerous examples of just how entrapped we are, leads to the very thing he tells us so convincingly it will lead to: reflexive impotence, a kind of masochistic pleasure in reading the signs everywhere in a culture we at once detest and enjoy. It is ironic, for instance, that in Fisher’s examinations of Wall-E or Supernanny one can detect more than a slight hint that he enjoys this same culture he lambasts. So the book demonstrates the very thing it warns us against: giving license to the enjoyment of capitalism because he knows in his heart just how despicable capitalism is.

Perhaps what is most astonishing in Fisher’s proposed alternatives is the return to notions of universality and totalizing explanations—as if Capital, as the capital C suggests, is some essential quality to capitalism, the driving force of profit at the center of capitalism. Even though Fisher spends considerable time talking about the effects of an endlessly malleable, supple system, a dynamic system capable of assimilating dissent and transforming it into entertainment, of reducing the voice of protest into a marketable idol, the structural cause seems to be reducible to a single, ineffable Thing. At one point, in yet another wrinkle of his definition of capitalist realism, Fisher argues it is realism “in itself,” which refers to the capacity of capitalism to reduce everything to brute material facts capable of abstract exchange, namely, money. Whether Fisher intends to appeal to a noumenal reality—I strongly suspect he does not—his basic argument nonetheless falls into an essentialist trap. This reducibility to a structure is problematic because it characterizes structure as fixed—granted, dialectical in its dynamic movements between production and anti-production, between ideological sheathing and systemic exploitation, but nonetheless comprehensive and homogenous in this dialectical structure. In other words, it falls into the old problem of traditional Marxism: by only seeing the superstructure as a dazzling array of effects that generate the appearance of reality (in postmodern capitalism, the appearance of a reality unmoored from its material roots), it tacitly presumes that reality is a stable or static grounding, a mode of production that operates and unfolds the same way everywhere. Similarly, the alternatives—a state subordinated to the general will—offer two more variations of the essentialist model which would, as a kind of sweeping away of the current structure—offer a new structure in its place. This grand revolutionary gesture, even if the very terms “state” and “general will” are acknowledged to be uncertain and requiring definition, is a backwards gesture, a return to a kind of modernist sensibility in opposition to the postmodern one with which Fisher is clearly uneasy. Fisher references the post-structuralists on numerous occasions, drawing on some of their observations about the nature of capitalism, and yet seems to neglect their refutations of the idea of structure—including the structure of the subject.

Fisher’s emphasis on the subjective experience of life under capitalist realism, its frustrations and anxieties, the affect disorders and community dysfunction, presume a humanism—and perhaps the most problematic tacit universal guiding his thinking. There is a centering of the human, a valuation of capitalism and history as exclusively a human phenomenon. That is, there is an anthropomorphizing of problems that are operational and ontologically independent, as if all of nature and capital is subordinated to human will. Yet everywhere we look, as Fisher himself notes, the Real erupts through the ideology, particularly in the form of environmental devastation or pandemics. That is, the human perspective is incidental to the ontologically distinct and inhuman operation of these events. Market volatility, for instance, or global warming do not depend on a human observer. This kind of anthropocentrism, which haunts Fisher’s Marxist view, and particularly his recommendations for change, ought to be critically renegotiated as rigorously as capitalist realism itself.

In wanting to conceive of the state as subordinate to the general will, one is faced with an awkward historical reversion to John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau: devising a system of governance with checks and balances, designed to work by the people, for the people—as if the human power of administration and regulation, predicated on an anthropocentric value system, is sufficient to regulate the complexity of the problems we face. While it is true that the American liberal democracy fetishizes the individual in precisely the way Fisher protests, his appeal to a general will abstracts the rights of the individual to the aggregate population. It assumes a human power to overturn a system and to institute a new and better one, where “human” here refers to a collective will that universally can be reified. In other words, it doesn’t rid us of the problem of the cult of individuality that capitalism so nourishes for its advantage; rather, it maintains the illusory sense of the monadic subject, capable of being colonized and corrupted through a faulty system. What we need, the suggestion seems to be, is a system which returns the subject to him or herself, allows the free expression of his or her will to be in balance with the aggregate, even if everywhere we see technologies that dissolve such notions of subjectivity.

Ironically for Fisher, a certain measure of authority is required to do this: a re-establishment of the big Other as a prohibitive check on human desires, which, in capitalism, is left unfettered and invariably leads to disaffection. The Supernanny state, regardless of the presumed comic value he seeks in this analogy, operates on the presumption that a big Other can limit our individual desires which, id-like, operate with reckless abandon within each individual. Capitalism nurtures the id and removes its limits, and the current activities of the state merely facilitate the removal of boundaries in the service of corporate interests. A Supernanny state which institutes a new kind of big Other would help to coalesce these individual desires into a harmonious general will. Or, if we take the flip side of this, the general will already exists, but is only restricted or duped by corporate modes of coercion and the Supernanny will provide a means of unleashing this general will in a responsibly hindered but liberated way. But this again presumes desire, where general will is now a function of desire, a quality “in” the subject and, by extension, “in” the masses. If the big Other is understood in a Deleuzian sense, where there is a recognition that the libidinal economy and the material economy are the same economy, where desire is a material ontology, then the persistence of a humanist axiology, so central to the ideological delusions of capitalism, can be dismantled. But this humanism must be recognized in Marxism as well. Thus, Fisher revives an old Marxist problem that the post-structuralists, and indeed Lacan, refuted: the idea that ideology is an external force that usurps the subject by transforming his or her desires, this psychic space which is “in” the head, into a consumerist need; therefore, what is needed is a liberation of the subject from this reality principle by a radical alteration of the reality principle. Somewhat reminiscent of Herbert Marcuse, Fisher seems to suggest a revolutionary self-consciousness is required, an internal transformation in order to assault capitalism as an external force. But the whole point of the big Other is that it structures the unconscious and makes the distinction between the subject and the object artificial.

The problem, then, is that Fisher, while recognizing the inhuman function of capitalism, remains entrenched in a value system that is thoroughly humanist. He at once acknowledges the proliferation of affect disorders as materially induced through capitalist environments, yet seeks to use the individual’s disaffection as a political tool, placing the possible resolution of an inhuman capitalist realism exclusively in the realm of the human.

Interestingly, Fisher raises quite briefly a post-humanist view. In critiquing Nick Land’s texts from the 1990s,[24] which posit the possibility of an artificially intelligent capitalism at a global scale which operates irrespective of human will, Fisher points to the very concern I have articulated briefly here: “One of the problems with Land’s position is… that it posits a ‘pure’ capitalism, a capitalism which is only inhibited and blocked by extrinsic, rather than internal, elements.”[25] For Fisher, capitalism is simultaneously the actual brutal exploitation and the sheathing of this exploitation; it publicly decries its own insistent actions. What Fisher does not consider here, which Land’s work points to, is a possibility of an immanent change. Capitalism’s dynamism should not only be conceived as a dialectical interaction between superstructure and base, but as possessing its own ontological process of unfolding. The very history of capitalism shows it to be a radically mutable, mutating set of systems, operating at numerous scales of production, organizing and destroying numerous markets, often without the aid of human input. The last forty years have seen the growth of an entirely new economy that operates in an exclusively virtual realm, the finance market. While finance speculation has been largely disastrous, it has also revealed a unique ontological potential within capitalism itself: to distribute the ownership of material property into a debt structure owned by hundreds of thousands. The organization of this distribution of ownership is, of course, nefarious and led to the financial meltdown of 2008. But it also has revealed a virtual ontological property of contemporary capital, namely, its capacity to distribute ownership laterally, to turn debt ownership into public ownership. We can also point to the advent of bitcoin, a virtual currency, which operate through a fully decentralized consensus system whereby each transaction is vetted by all users in a public database or ledger called the blockchain. This allows for the transfer of digital currency free from any centralized authority. The press generally focuses on the criminal use of bitcoin, but it also points to an emerging capitalism that could potentially make obsolete centralized banks that territorialize finance for the purposes of concentrating wealth and maintaining the profit motive.

A grand systemic change through targeted strikes, external pressures on management, or even through violent revolution are no longer realistic—at least if the goal is the eradication of capitalism. Even terrorism is not a real threat to capitalism; rather, it seems to nurture the authoritarian, fascistic dimensions of capitalism. Instead a posthumanist critique of capitalism ought to be made, one which examines the ontology of capitalism, its non-anthropic mechanisms, and recognizes that the human experience is merely one factor in capitalism’s operation. Such work is being done, for instance, in the economic sphere by Benjamin Lozano, who provided the above information about bitcoins and the finance market, and in the realm of philosophy by the speculative realists. While these de-anthropic accounts are themselves limited in precisely the way Fisher is not—namely, in their exclusion of the existential toll of capitalism—they nonetheless provide a framework for an effective mode of transformation that does not depend on traditional and, to some degree, antiquated Marxist critiques. (Where, for instance, does the labor theory of value enter into a discussion of credit default swaps?) My use of the term posthumanism, then, would not designate a dismissal of the human experience. Acknowledging the suffering and catastrophe induced by capitalism—the subjective experience, the trauma of life under capitalism—is necessary but insufficient. This view tacitly sees the human experience as separate or above the world that it inhabits, as a thing which reacts to or shapes its own life world from some universal and privileged position. But, in fact, the human experience is necessarily tied to multiple environments through which that experience unfolds, contingent on the multiple dimensions in which human activity take place. We not only exist in the artificially constructed human environments of cities and nation-states, the cultural spaces of law and media, or within our natural ecosystems, but we also inhabit increasingly a world of virtual spaces, technologies that are self-sufficient, self-organizing and increasingly autonomous. Capitalism already operates in profound ways “self-directedly” (or “selves-directedly,” since there are many capitalisms) in all of these environments. Market volatility is subject to as many non-human factors as human ones, not to mention environmental activities. Indeed, as I write now, we have learned of complex malware which has infected the Internet of Things and exposed an entire world of vulnerabilities at the level of communicating objects. Perhaps this kind of cyber-anarchy points to another mode of dissent against capitalism—immanent transformation steered toward a dissolution of the profit motive.

Fisher’s despair is not unlike the old joke Woody Allen’s character Alvy Singer tells his audience at the beginning of Annie Hall: “Two elderly women are at a Catskill’s mountain resort, and one of them says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible’; the other one says, ‘Yeah, I know, and such small portions!’ Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life.” If we substitute capitalism for life, we have Fisher’s Singer-esque position. And, like the existentialists before him, Fisher seems to want to re-inspire the absurd struggle, the humanist defiance of the fixed game, and thereby returns to the past even as he acknowledges the future. While it is crucial that such cultural diagnoses and perceptive critiques continue, it is also crucial to begin decentering Man, to continue the postmodernist project of dissolving binary oppositions, patriarchy, attacking metaphysics, casting suspicion at grand narratives, but to go further and recognize the technological and virtual life world that now exists and operates in increasingly self-directed, inhuman ways. Rather than the transcendental myth of sweeping, universal change, we should seek immanent modes of transformation.



[1] Wendy Brown, “Resisting left Melancholy,” Boundary 2 26.3 (1999): 19. Italics in original.

[2] Mark Fisher. Capitalist Realism, Is There No Alternative?, (Winchester: Zero Books, 2009), 4.

[3] Ibid, 15. Italics in original.

[4] Ibid, 13.

[5] Ibid, 16.

[6] Ibid, 2.

[7] Ibid, 3.

[8] Ibid, 3.

[9] Ibid, 22.

[10] Ibid, 24.

[11] Ibid, 23.

[12] Ibid, 37. Italics in original.

[13] Ibid, 46. Italics in original.

[14] Ibid, 42.

[15] Ibid, 77.

[16] Ibid, 80.

[17] Ibid, 53.

[18] Ibid, 65. Italics in original.

[19] Ibid, 71. Italics in original.

[20] Ibid, 77.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid, 79.

[24] Nick Land is primarily known for his innovative and eclectic philosophical analyses of culture in the 1990s in a number of writings written for the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, a short-lived interdisciplinary research collective he helped found in 1995. His writings come from a range of perspectives, generally offering a strong critique of the Kantian legacy of delimiting knowledge and its presumption of asserting anthopocentric control on the inhuman force of generation that lies outside the human. His controversial views, via a Deleuze-Guattarian ontology, that capitalism, rather than being regulated and controlled, should be accelerated to deepen and enhance the deterritorialization of social mechanisms of control in order to release the uninhibited syntheses of production (which he feels capitalism fosters), was met by general disdain by the left. For a recent collection of Nick Land’s writings, see: Nick Land, Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987 – 2007, eds. Robin Mackay and Ray Brassier (Falmouth, UK: Urbanomic/Sequence Press, 2001).

[25] Ibid, 46. Italics in original.


Todd Hoffman is an associate professor at Augusta University in Georgia, USA. He earned his doctorate through the philosophy and English program at Purdue University. His areas of interest include the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Marxist and psychoanalytic theories, postmodernism, and contemporary American literature. He is currently working on Deleuze’s ontology and its interpretive and structural uses in examining literature, in particular notions of flight or escape from totalizing social systems.