It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. This is the opening statement of Mark Fisher’s book, Capitalist Realism. It’s a phrase often attributed to the philosophers Slavoj Zizek and Fredric Jameson.
Zizek points to the various apocalyptic movies that show the end of the world in vivid detail: the alien invasions, the zombie outbreaks, the epidemics, wars, famines, and solar flares. But where, he asks, are the movies showing the end of the market, the end of the profit motive and the end of capitalism? These films are few and far between.
There is a widespread sense that capitalism is the only viable political and economic system, and that alternatives are not feasible or even possible.
In Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher presents the reasons why we feel this way: how the old arguments for systematic change have given way to a kind of surface cynicism, a passive acceptance of the negatives of our current world, and the death of grand narratives. This is the world according to Mark Fisher.
If there is an overall thesis in Fisher’s book it’s this:
Capitalism as a system absorbs all resistance against it. Every movement that tries to oppose it, gets absorbed into it and gets turned into new products. Historical and religious objects become dead objects under capitalism, to be exchanged for money rather than valued for their intrinsic worth. We, the consumers, are in turn taught to never stand still, to be agile, and to take personal responsibility for the problems of our society. Even the problems that have social and political causes, such as the mental health epidemic.
Today, there is an imperative to value the new over everything else. The past must be killed, to make room for new objects. The market can only work if the intrinsic value of the past is eliminated.
Walk around the British Museum, Fisher writes, where you see objects torn from their lifeworlds and assembled as if on the deck of some Predator spacecraft, and you have a powerful image of this process at work. In the conversion of practices and rituals into merely aesthetic objects, the beliefs of previous cultures are objectively ironized, transformed into artifacts.
Capitalism 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.
This transformation is sold to us as a good thing. The beliefs of the past, whether religious or secular, we are told, hold the risk of fanaticism. We are safe from fanaticism by believing in consumerism instead. The trick is, of course, is that consumerism is its own form of fanaticism. We pretend that money is just an object, and yet everywhere, we worship that object as something spiritually significant.
Fraser’s second point is about movements that try to challenge capitalism, and how they get absorbed back into it. Anti-capitalist statements proliferate even within capitalism. While we have few movies that imagine a world beyond capitalism, we have many where the big villain is an “evil corporation”.
Take Pixar’s 2008 film, Wall-E.
The film is about a future where earth has been destroyed by over-consumption and is now a large rubbish dump. An evil corporation, Buy n Large, is responsible. They develop a spacecraft for humans to live on off of the planet – where they can engage in constant entertainment and consumption – becoming obese and infantile, incapable of making decisions. At first glance, this film seems to challenge capitalism. However, at second glance, the evil corporation in the film seems to reinforce, rather than challenge, our own actions as consumers. Wall-E as a film “performs our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to continue to consume with impunity”.
Capitalism absorbs movements against it by using our cynicism against us. As a society, we no longer take seriously the idea of grand narratives or ideologies, and so we remain ironically detached, even when watching a film that shows us how our actions are damaging the planet. We can no longer see what’s happening right in front of us. And what’s more, we no longer take any action.
We are told that we must take personal responsibility for our lives, but at the same time, we are never told that that personal responsibility includes consuming less products.
Instead, we are presented with a fantasy. We can keep consuming whatever we like, so long as we buy “the right products”. Products claim to be green or good for the planet, when in reality, all consumption leads to the same outcome: deforestation, the destruction of our natural environment, the increase in the size of our cities and the increase in human waste and garbage dumps – at the expense of other animals. The future that Wall-E presents is seemingly inevitable, no matter which products we consume. The problem is not what we buy, it’s the fact that we’re buying at all.
Traditionally, young people have been the ones to lead social change movements that resist capitalism. But now, Fisher points out, young people are more politically disengaged than ever before, particularly than in the 1960s and 70s. Many young people today know how bad the state of the world is, but they feel that they can’t do anything about it. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Poverty, famine and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated easily painted as naive utopianism.”
Instead of aiming for tangible political outcomes, young people have been trapped into a kind of passive entertainment matrix. Fisher gives a comedic example here from one of his classes:
I challenged one student about why he always wore headphones in class. He replied that it didn’t matter, because he wasn’t actually playing any music. In another lesson, he was playing music at a very low volume through the headphones, without wearing them. When I asked him to switch it off, he replied that even he couldn’t hear it.
Why wear the headphones without playing music or play music without wearing the headphones? Because the presence of the phones on the ears or the knowledge that the music is playing (even if he couldn’t hear it) was a reassurance that the matrix was still there, within reach.
There is a constant pressure to always be consuming, to always be entertained, and to never take the time or space for quiet contemplation and reflection. Even when such time is taken, any objection to the current way the world works will be met by an equal amount of cynicism from whoever you object to.
Fisher’s ultimate metaphor here is 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.
He goes on to suggest that our tools and technologies of constant consumption have led to extremely negative impacts on our mental states. At the same time, mental health has been de-politicized. We are told that our mental health is merely a matter of imbalanced chemicals in the brain and our personal failings. People who work very long hours are told that they should take anti-depressants, rather than work fewer hours. People who are addicted to technology or overwhelmed by the constant pressure to consume more, are told that they should see a psychologist, rather than simplifying their lives.
The beneficiaries of the mental health crisis, the big pharmaceutical companies, make more money the more suffering exists in society. Long term, systematic solutions are ruled out. Personal responsibility becomes paramount: the solution is always to buy more things. This can take the form of pills, but it can equally take the form of corporate wellbeing retreats, mindfulness seminars and so on. When healing becomes a commodity, it moves away from its intrinsic value and towards something else. We are not told to take a step back and heal our wounds, but to buy more, to overwhelm ourselves more, and to re-injure ourselves in an endless cycle of self-exploitation.
Fisher does not present a solution here. He merely points out that a future beyond capitalism is difficult to imagine. But there are others who can imagine it.
One is the author Peter Frase. In his book Four Futures he imagines four different alternatives that might come after capitalism: communism, rentism, socialism and exterminism.
In Frase’s view, capitalism will end, due to a combination of automation and climate change: the twin crises of having too much and having too little. Automation will lead to us having too much: “a fully robotized economy that produces so much, with so little human labor, that there is no longer any need for workers.” Climate change will lead to us having too little: “it anticipates a scarcity of natural resources, the loss of agricultural land and habitable environments.” In both cases, the threats will end our current way of life.
He presents his futures as follows.
The first, communism, is a return to the ideas of the past, but with new technology: the decentralization of work away from wage labor, and a fully automated luxury system, where the benefits of technology are spread evenly across the population, allowing us to all live in abundance. There may be new forms of conflict, but they will not be based around our working lives.
The second, rentism, is a bleaker vision, based on the Harvard economist Richard Freeman’s idea: “Who owns the robots, owns the world.” Instead of automation leading to a life of equality, in this vision of the future, robots are instead captured by intellectual property laws and owned by a select few major corporations. Everyone then has to buy access to the benefits of technology through licensing fees. More and more of our life becomes subject to corporate control, and we end up in a dystopia with very little freedom.
The third option, socialism, envisions a world where we have some technological advancement, but not enough to end climate change on its own. Instead, huge government programs would be required to massively shift our infrastructure to decrease emissions. A certain fairness might be maintained through a universal basic income or market mechanisms.
The final option is the true dystopia: exterminism. In this future, the rich retreat to their own fortresses, where they live in the luxury of full automation, while everyone else lives in poverty on a planet that is being destroyed by climate change. This future closely resembles the 2013 Blomkamp film, Elysium.
A small elite—the 1 percent, if you will—has decamped for a space station called Elysium. There, they enjoy lives of comfort and leisure, lives that are apparently eternal due their access to miraculous “Med-Bay” technology. Back on Earth, meanwhile, the rest of humanity lives on a crowded, polluted planet, governed by a robotic police force. The plot centers around Max (Matt Damon), one of the Earth-bound rabble who has been poisoned by radiation, as he attempts to penetrate the sanctum of Elysium and access its medical wonders.
The political economy of Elysium is somewhat difficult to extract from the film, but some suggestive themes emerge. Most important is that the rich on Elysium do not appear to be economically dependent on Earth in any significant way. We do see a factory, where Max works in the beginning of the movie and which is run by one of the Elysium elite. But the purpose of that factory seems to be merely the production of weapons and robots, whose purpose in turn is to control the population of Earth.
For the most part, the residents of Earth appear less like a proletariat than like inmates of a concentration camp, where populations are warehoused rather than exploited for their labor.
The political economy of Elysium therefore differs from that of, for example, The Hunger Games, in which the posh lifestyles in the capital city of Panem are sustained by the surrounding “districts” where the poor produce essential commodities.
“The existence of an impoverished, economically superfluous rabble poses a great danger to the ruling class, which will naturally fear imminent expropriation; confronted with this threat, several courses of action present themselves.”
“The masses can be bought off with some degree of redistribution of resources, as the rich share out their wealth in the form of social welfare programs, at least if resource constraints aren’t too binding. But in addition to potentially reintroducing scarcity into the lives of the rich, this solution is liable to lead to an ever-rising tide of demands on the part of the masses.”
So what happens if the masses are dangerous but are no longer a working class, and hence of no value to the rulers? Someone will eventually get the idea that it would be better to get rid of them.
In this, the darkest of Frase’s futures, a small band of elite will eventually decide to exterminate everyone else, the rest of humanity, who no longer hold any market value. And so, it is possible to imagine a future without a market after all.
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