Book thoughts: Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher


This year I’m determined to get back into reading. I used to read a lot when I was younger and, unfortunately, it’s a habit that I’ve lost over the years.

At the start of the year I decided that I’d like to read at least three books this year, and decided to track my progress on Goodreads. I’ve had more free time since finishing uni, so I managed to reach this goal ahead of time! To keep track of my thoughts (and to breathe a little life into this blog) I thought I’d document my thoughts on one of them here.

In this post I’m discussing a non-fiction book, Capitalist Realism. The book probes the idea that capitalism is the only viable mode of production.

My thoughts

In this book Mark Fisher describes a phenomena which he calls “capitalist realism”. In his own words it is when “capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable.” He notes that it is embodied by Margaret Thatcher’s slogan: “There is no alternative”. I’m sure many of us have had discussions in which capitalism is described as being imperfect yet the best system we have. Fisher defines capitalist realism against the backdrop of a generation that has grown up since the end of the Cold War. He states that capitalism has saturated the political unconscious.

Before reading this book I was very excited about it. It’s allure comes from that it is a brief read (81 pages) with a single focus. Unfortunately, although it is brief, I still struggled with it. At times I found Fisher’s writing style to be tricky to follow and drawn out. It’s the sort of read where sometimes you have to re-read a sentence a few times out load to make sense of it. While it was no doubt thought-provoking and informative, at times it seemed to lack cohesion. This was most noticeable when it leaned on the work of other theorists (mainly Slavoj Žižek and Fredric Jameson). This can make it hard to grasp the points Fisher is trying to make. I’ve no doubt that further reading into the theories he alludes to and a re-read of this book would bring further insights.

But that is not to say the book is fruitless! Of interest was how capitalist realism absorbs entertainment with anti-capitalist tones. Fisher uses the example of the film Wall-E, in which the world has been nigh on destroyed by rampant capitalism. The film, he says, in performing anti-capitalist sentiment for the viewer, absolves us of providing critique of capitalism ourselves. This allows us to know in our mind that there are problems, without committing ourselves to any serious action.

He continues this line of thinking later when discussing Live Aid and Project Red (both of which raise awareness and funds for good causes) . He explains that these endeavors tacitly accept that capitalism has no alternative, as opposed to organising for any systemic changes. The end of the chapter stands out, especially in light of recent consumer-centred action against climate change.

“The fantasy being that western consumerism, far from being intrinsically implicated in system global inequalities, could itself solve them. All we have to do is by the right products.”

On the topic of climate change, later in the book Fisher discusses Judith Butler’s concept of “responsibilization”. This term describes when a government passes on guilt for a societal issue onto individuals. Applying it to climate change, he argues against focusing solely on individualistic actions towards climate change. Fisher says that because climate change has been individualised and become everyone’s problem, it is in fact no-one’s problem. This strikes at a larger point he is making about capitalism’s lack of centralisation. When everyone is to blame, no-one is to blame.

He likens this lack of centralisation to a call centre. You call up, trying to reach someone of authority, but always seem to find yourself left on hold and going round in circles. This is a very poignant point because although capitalism has various passing figureheads, there is no single embodiment of it that can be responsible for problems such as climate change. Instead we have a global system of corporations and financial institutions, each with their own interests, represented by a carousel of media outfits and politicians. Fisher hammers this home when he says:

“Does anyone really think, for instance, that things would improve if we replaced the whole managerial and banking class with a new set of (“better”) people?”

Unfortunately the diagnosis seems to lose momentum here. Although he makes prescriptions at the end of the book, they seem a little hollow. I couldn’t seem to understand how they related to capitalist realism. Most interestingly from the end of the book is that he believes capitalist realism will survive neoliberalism (the current dominant flavour of capitalism, in use in the UK). He notes that neoliberalism continues on in a zombie-like way after the 2008 crash, while capitalist realism still prevails. Therefore, he believes that capitalist realism will live on: whether capitalism returns to social democracy or something else.

This book was published in 2009, before the political polarisation we see today in electoral politics in the USA and UK. Yet Fisher seems to be right in his prediction. Advocates of social democracy, Bernie Sanders & Alexandria Occasio-Cortez (in the USA), and Jeremy Corbyn (in the UK), all seem to accept capitalist realism. While they may use the word socialism, they are only advocating capitalism with the edges rounded off.

I should mention that the book also contains some great bits on how capitalist realism feeds off of us. The sections on mental health and our addiction to smartphones are striking. I’d definitely recommend this book if only to introduce a few ideas about the way the world works. My opinion is that to fully appreciate this book would take some further reading. This isn’t a bad thing, just don’t be fooled into thinking that a small book will be concise.