Saturday, 6 February 2010

Book Review: Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? by Mark Fisher

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.