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9 November 2022

The Mark Fisher generation

In 2009 Capitalist Realism sought to upend the status quo. As political paralysis returns, its message is as urgent as ever.

By Alex Niven

For me, and for many others, encountering Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism in 2009 felt like coming up for air. In a society where everything was arranged to make you think that emotional well-being began and ended with your own personal psychodrama, perhaps the most important thing Capitalist Realism did was to suggest that mental suffering might have something to do with structural flaws in society as a whole. In a political system which endlessly promoted the notion that we were all alone, Fisher’s book announced that we were suffering together. Also, more hopefully, it said that if we were to realise this, and somehow make connections between our several hardships, we would be taking the first step towards doing something we seemed to have mostly forgotten about by the late Noughties: mounting an organised resistance. This is the near-spiritual message in the short, sharp text of Capitalist Realism, published on the eve of a new and tumultuous decade. Whatever political and theoretical nuances it might otherwise have implied, this was a book which called for a joining of human hands.

Capitalist Realism went on to become one of the seminal political texts of the 2010s, and beyond. It set aside solipsism, irony and ego to imagine a community of people united by a simple belief that things were not OK – and then to offer the tantalising possibility that this imagined community might soon become a social reality capable of changing the world. As one of its most evocative chapter titles asked, with almost childlike clarity and hopefulness: what if you held a protest and everyone came?

[See also: The ghosts of Mark Fisher]

As Fisher’s first proper book, Capitalist Realism marked the end of two decades of non-conformist intellectual questing for its author. Given that Fisher was 41 when it was published it could be viewed as a breakthrough at the end of an unusually long professional apprenticeship. In the years prior to its publication, Fisher had made strenuous attempts to argue that there might be a viable alternative to the received, late-20th-century template for writing and thinking. Capitalist Realism was merely the final proof that he was right.

Born in 1968, Fisher had a working-class upbringing in the East Midlands and benefited in his early years from the fertile intellectual climate of British higher education in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As a postgraduate student at the University of Warwick for much of the 1990s, he was one of the key members of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, an “accelerationist” group dedicated to imagining new cultural modes, mediums and theories that might emerge on the other side of late-capitalist dystopias.

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After completing his PhD on “cybernetic theory-fiction”, Fisher became one of the first truly indispensable presences on the still-young internet in the early-to-mid Noughties. Free from the strictures of a secure academic job, he made a virtue of what would later be called “precarity” by occupying the centre of a scene described by the critic Simon Reynolds as a “constellation” of blogs. From the Iraq War to the Global Financial Crisis, this cabal of theoretical and pop-cultural discussion was home to some of the best, most entertaining writing on the planet. Circa 2006, chancing on some of the sites in this corner of the so-called blogosphere – with weird avatars for authors who had aliases such as Kino Fist, The Impostume, blissblog, and Sit Down Man, You’re A Bloody Tragedy – you would encounter debates, which were begun in the posts themselves and then endlessly elaborated in their byzantine comment sections. Subjects included, but were not limited to, the legacy of MR James’s ghost stories, the misuses of Derridean theory, the legacy of postwar state-funded broadcasting, V for Vendetta, the pointlessness of mainstream media, and the imaginative paucity of Arctic Monkeys lyrics.

In the middle of this informal grouping, and supplying most of its creative energy, was Fisher’s seminal k-punk blog. Besides acting as a hub for the wider scene’s primitive version of social media, k-punk was also where Fisher developed a philosophically expansive body of work, which used a series of mainly cultural examples to try to find an escape route from the airless atmosphere of the High Noughties – the tackiest, most desultory interlude in modern history.

When the Global Financial Crisis smashed apart the complacency of the era in 2008, Zero Books emerged. Established by Fisher, the novelist Tariq Goddard and the academic Matteo Mandarini (with the publicist Emma Goddard completing the line-up), Zero marked the point at which this hitherto marginal avant-garde started to enter the mainstream of reading and reviewing. Though Capitalist Realism was not the first Zero book it was a manifesto of sorts for the new imprint – a book-length expansion of the actual manifesto Fisher wrote for the inside cover of every Zero book, which railed against “cretinous anti-intellectualism” and “expensively educated hacks”.

Capitalist Realism was a product of Noughties Britain. From the viewpoint of our era of creeping authoritarianism and ecological catastrophe, we might be tempted to look kindly on this time of relative social stability and comparatively high living standards. But it represented a particular kind of dystopia for Fisher. Away from debates about the deepening inequality that occurred under Third Way liberalism, the sense of desperation Fisher harnessed in Capitalist Realism arose from a historically distinct feeling that there was no visible opposition, anywhere, whatsoever, to a worsening status quo.

The sense that there was no alternative to globalised capitalism, to cite the central refrain of Capitalist Realism, had been pervasive since at least the early 1990s, when the fall of socialism in eastern Europe signalled the start of neoliberalism’s imperial phase. But it was only in the years immediately preceding the Global Financial Crisis that this world-spirit became truly hegemonic.

In Britain, the sense of entropy had been encouraged by the political misdeeds of the presiding New Labour government. After coming to power in 1997, this centrist administration had spent its first term in government (1997-2001) triangulating between neoconservatism (tough talk on immigration and benefits claimants, continued privatisation of public amenities, fawning support for big business) and some genuinely radical reforms, most notably in foreign policy (such as the referendums for Scottish and Welsh devolution in 1997 and the Good Friday Agreement for Northern Ireland in 1998). However, by 2003, with the onset of the Iraq War, New Labour had become a typical neoliberal proposition in the classic Reaganite-Thatcherite mould.

[See also: “Mark Fisher was the intellectual leader of a generation”]

As privatisation reforms in the NHS continued, and as the Blair government raised the university tuition fees it had introduced in 1998, there was a strong sense of decline in British culture, especially among younger people. But it was one obscured by a housing-market bubble and a seemingly robust economy that guaranteed a decent standard of living for many older professionals (though not those in the increasingly besieged public sector). The mass-media expression of this zeitgeist was a glut of ultra-derivative guitar bands such as Kaiser Chiefs, Razorlight and the Zutons, and a venal celebrity culture epitomised by exploitative TV shows like Big Brother. It felt as though we were trapped inside an endlessly reloading cycle of late-capitalist tawdriness, with no counterculture to offer even a modicum of friction, let alone relief.

It was into this suffocating historical moment that Capitalist Realism dropped like a bomb in the approach to Christmas 2009, after a year or so in which a tottering political system had been subject to a series of ineffectual repair jobs (the bailout of the banking system, the election of neoliberal-lite US president Barack Obama, half-hearted attempts to “clean up” British politics after a protracted scandal about exorbitant MP expense claims).

At a little under 25,000 words, Fisher’s book is no expansive work of theory or wide-ranging political survey. It revolves around interconnected themes of the relationship between old and young, a blocked generational handover, and the central role played by education and its professional structures in immiserating both teachers and students – and by extension, the civic and intellectual livelihood of society at large. Fisher found an evocative metaphor for the vast generation gap of the 21st century in the plot of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film, Children of Men. In the dystopian near-future Britain of the film – and PD James’s 1992 novel on which it is based – an entire society has lost the ability to bear children. For Fisher, this narrative demands to be read figuratively, as a basis for interrogating late capitalism’s presiding mood of stasis and fatalism. Borrowing from Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek, Fisher offers the pithy statement that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, and then presents us with two more pointed provocations: “How long can a culture persist without the new?” and “What happens if the young are no longer capable of producing surprises?”

The basic diagnosis of creative dearth has remained broadly accurate as a judgement on our wider historical epoch. Fisher’s theory was given solid grounding by a series of vignettes drawn from his experiences of precarious academia. Fisher’s neologism “market Stalinism” captured what was happening in countless dismal offices and meeting rooms throughout the world. In the typical public-sector workplace, he argued, “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.” Late capitalism repeats Stalinism’s valuing of symbols of achievement over actual achievement.

The feeling of hopelessness in the face of the market-Stalinist bureaucracy was also filtering down into the minds of the young in their formative years. Drawing on his own experiences of teaching in further education, Fisher presented another ground-breaking diagnosis of an adolescent malaise he termed “depressive hedonia”. This he defined in the following terms, as a condition

constituted not by an inability to get pleasure so much as… by an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure… Students are aware that if they don’t attend [lectures] for weeks on end, and/or if they don’t produce any work, they will not face any meaningful sanction. They typically respond to this freedom not by pursuing projects but by falling into hedonic (or anhedonic) lassitude: the soft narcosis, the comfort food oblivion of PlayStation, all-night TV and marijuana.

This analysis got to the heart of why 21st-century youth culture had ground to a halt. In a historical period where the suppression of personal freedom and fulfilment was seen as the ultimate evil, why did young people feel so unfulfilled and so lacking in vitality?

Going beyond outdated doctrinaire Marxist talk of “false consciousness”, Fisher presented a simple explanation. Underneath the surface euphoria of the golden age of globalisation, Capitalist Realism demonstrated how the supremacy of the market had led to the total subjection of citizens remodelled as consumers. There was radical power in Fisher’s ability to put a name to the forms of social control which many people felt but few could vocalise.

Despite its substantial impact when it was first published, the viral spread of Fisher’s text occurred later, beginning with the series of events that occurred in and around 2011. In Britain, the book’s path towards ubiquity was laid by the student protests of late 2010 – which followed the election of a right-wing Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government and its fateful decision to raise university tuition fees from around £3,000 per year to around £9,000. This was the moment when all the discussion in Capitalist Realism of a dystopian education system heading for disaster began to seem truly prescient. With the prospect of massively enlarged student debt combining with the first onslaught of the coalition government’s austerity programme, it seemed as if a tipping point had finally been reached.

As student protestors were kettled by police on London streets and radicalised by sit-ins and occupations in university buildings across Britain, it was clear that Capitalist Realism had played a role in achieving what Fisher characterised as “a way out of the motivation/demotivation binary”.

With the British protests leading into the far more momentous global eruptions of 2011 (the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, the Spanish Indignados movement, the anti-austerity protests in Athens), it became increasingly apparent that Capitalist Realism was one of the manifestos of choice for those involved in the radical outbursts of the early 2010s. As Fisher had written in his stirring peroration to the book:

The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.

[See also: Did Brexit kill Mark Fisher’s theory of capitalist realism?]

Much of the world now seems to have reverted to a state of paralysis not unlike that which provoked Fisher’s polemical anger in the late Noughties. The channelling of radical energies into left-populist figures such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn dangled the possibility of large-scale political reform. But by the beginning of the 2020s, at the latest, both had been defeated with varying degrees of finality. Syriza’s experiment in leftist government in Greece fizzled out long ago, and the global Occupy movement has become a historical curiosity. Capitalist governments have hobbled on in the absence of any really cogent alternative. With ecological catastrophe now even more of a danger than it was when Capitalist Realism was written, Fisher’s axiom about the end of the world being easier to imagine than the end of capitalism is even more apposite.

While leftist ideas and attitudes are far more influential and more frequently articulated now than they were in the late Noughties, the call for a revival of protest and activism by the Capitalist Realism generation has not yet generated any lasting radical outcomes. Fascism and the far right are resurgent, raising the possibility of a capitalist collapse that will lead to the triumph of militarism and authoritarianism rather than any humane egalitarian overhaul.

While the book brought Fisher acclaim, it did not bring him the lasting professional success it merited – and the attention the book garnered in the first half of the 2010s had little effect either way on his declining mental health. His tragic suicide in January 2017 had nothing directly to do with Capitalist Realism. Nonetheless, we can say that Mark Fisher’s death was indeed an event with a wider social impact – mostly because it deprived us of an unusually eloquent and perceptive social commentator, and because it ruled out the possibility that there would ever be a proper sequel to the astonishing generational manifesto that was Capitalist Realism.

A new edition of “Capitalist Realism”, introduced by Alex Niven, is published by Zero Books on 25 November

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This article appears in the 09 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, On the brink