Perhaps no work of twentieth-century philosophy has affected the socialist left the way Mark Fisher’s 2009 Capitalist Realism did. In Capitalist Realism, Fisher sketches out a bleak picture of the effect neoliberal hegemony has had on our collective imagination: no longer is capitalism the only sensible political-economic system, but it has become the only natural system. To suggest that there could be a societal organization outside of capitalism is tantamount to fantasy. The book’s subtitle, Is There No Alternative?, referring to the famous quote of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, captures this effectively.
But Fisher’s introduction of the concept of capitalist realism is far from the only significant contribution of the book. He discusses candidly his struggles with depression and relates them to the broader way society is organized. Under neoliberal capitalism, every citizen is expected to take personal responsibility for every one of their decisions, and Fisher says the same is true of their mental health; this is why, according to him, we so frequently see self-help books pushed on the masses, why so many people are medicated. Now, to be sure, Fisher never downplays the biological component of mental illness – indeed, he wonders why we never interrogate further those biological components. If depression is caused by an imbalance of serotonin, he asks, could it be possible that there is a social reason why a person has such an imbalance? Could neoliberalism’s intense atomization play a role in the feelings of loneliness and alienation so many feel under neoliberalism?
“The power of capitalist realism derives in part from the way that capitalism subsumes and consumes all previous history…”-Mark Fisher, “Capitalist Realism”
Undoubtedly, though, part of the reason for Capitalist Realism’s enduring popularity is its clarity. While Fisher draws on some of the most esoteric names in continental philosophy – Lacan, Deleuze, and Žižek among them – he never leans on jargon or abstract language. Quite contrarily, he’s an impressively accessible writer, even for readers unfamiliar with the aforementioned thinkers – indeed, one need not even be familiar with Marx to engage thoughtfully with Fisher’s work. In place of dense philosophical abstraction, Fisher refers to pop culture to make his points. Capitalist Realism is replete with references and analyses of popular music, books, and movies; Fisher points to Wall-E, Nirvana, Children of Men, Kafka, U2, and Office Space, among others, to illustrate his points. It demystifies philosophy and moves it from the realm of the academic to the workingman.
It’s fitting for his political project, too. If there is any escape from capitalist realism, he suggests, it can only come from a mass movement of a united working class. For all its diagnoses, Fisher never tells us how to fix the problems of capitalist realism – if any single philosopher could, we wouldn’t be in this situation to begin with. But what he does do is cut through the haze. Capitalist Realism didn’t end capitalist realism, but it does suggest there’s a way out through solidarity. And imagining an alternative is the first step to breaking through.
By Hilarius Bookbinder, Contributor