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13 August 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 3:19pm

Did Brexit kill Mark Fisher’s theory of capitalist realism?

After the financial crash, Fisher wondered why it was so hard to come up with an alternative to capitalism. 

By Nicholas Barrett

In 2007, the cultural theorist Mark Fisher was walking through a shopping centre when he heard the voice of Amy Winehouse singing “Valerie” over the speakers. Fisher’s first assumption was that The Zutons, who had released the song the previous year, must have covered an obscure track from the 1960s, which he was now hearing. The soulful style adopted by Winehouse meant that Fisher had inadvertently “reversed the temporality”. In reality, “Valerie” was a song from 2006 that had been retrofitted with the sounds of the 1960s and had instantly become more popular than the original. In 2007, the Winehouse version was everywhere, meaning that if there was such a thing as a sound of 2007, it was barely distinguishable from the sounds of 1967.

2006 was also the year that Fisher saw the video for “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” by the Arctic Monkeys, which looked and sounded like a performance from a 20-year-old episode of the British music show The Old Grey Whistle Test. Instead of being marketed and consumed as gimmicks, these songs were celebrated as if they were contemporary and original. The same was true in cinema, where the past was continuously being referenced, rebooted and remarketed as if it were something new. It was almost as if cultural time had slowed down and developed an ability to accommodate its own history in a way that made it practically impossible to create anything that was genuinely original or distinctive. “To be in the 21st century”, in Fisher’s view, is “to have 20th century culture on high definition screens”. At some point in the late 1980s, we became “marooned” in the past when art started to lose its connection with time, a phenomenon referred to as the “slow cancellation of the future”. He saw this as a symptom of “capitalist realism”, a term he used to describe a culture ensnared by market forces and characterised by political and cultural banality.

Two years after encountering the Winehouse cover, Fisher wrote his book, Capitalist Realism. In it, he captured the post-crash mood by asking his readers why it was so hard to imagine alternatives to market fundamentalism and whether popular culture was reflecting our inability to imagine a better future by taking shelter in a reimagined past. But in the last two years, the governing principle of facilitating the gradual rises in GDP while avoiding divisive ideological instincts has been eroded by Brexit and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, who, as early as 2015 wanted “a social Europe, a cohesive Europe, a coherent Europe, not a free market Europe.” This is evident on the right as well as the left: in 2014, then-Ukip leader Nigel Farage would dismiss the economic consequences of a then-unlikely Brexit by saying “’there are more important things than money”.

There are two intriguing conclusions to consider. First, that capitalist realism really is dead. The fervour to win the “global race” for economic growth seems to have been replaced by a populist scramble to preserve cultural identities and a sense of economic agency. Politicians on both the left and right now feel as though they have more to gain by biting Adam Smith’s invisible hand than they do by shaking it. And if business leaders object to the inconvenience… “fuck business”.

The second possibility is that capitalist realism is as alive as ever and that those who vote against the proponents of global free trade simply feel frustrated by their lack of access to it. As wages stagnate and the cost of living grows, the idea of owning a house, a car and starting a family has faded into the distance for millions of people. British graduates from the most impoverished backgrounds will graduate with £57,000 of debt. Before the student loan is even paid off, an ambitious young professional will have to take out a mortgage if they want to avoid a lifetime of renting. The average price of a house in the UK is now over £220,000. These seemingly endless cycles mean the best minds of a generation are preparing to spend the majority of their working lives haunted by debts they took out simply to fit in with the people around them. The concentration of wealth and high-status jobs in big cities has created a perception in left-behind towns that free-market capitalism as we know it only works in London, while in London, a housing crisis has led to the perception that capitalism itself only works for those who already own property. It could be that the bulk of Leave voters and Corbyn supporters want to be able to enjoy the fruits of free-market capitalism, not destroy it. According to the National Centre for Social Research, 88 per cent of Britons want to maintain free trade with the European Union. Meanwhile, a survey by Ipsos Mori found that millennials were less likely to boycott a product than those who are older.

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Towards the end of his life, Fisher seemed to favour the former of the possibilities. “Neoliberalism,” he wrote “is finished as a project, even if it lurches on, thrashing around like a decorticated terminator. We’re finally groping our way, blinking, out of capitalist realism.” Far from being a radical reinvention of society, Labour’s 2017 manifesto was more like a fully-costed update of Ed Miliband’s agenda from 2015, but it did seek to create more areas of public life that could exist unmolested by market pressures. And it could be argued that remaining attached to the European Economic Area would constitute an attempt to preserve the welfare state within a market-based economy that has trashed it for the last 40 years. In his recent “Build it in Britain” speech, Corbyn suggested that a Labour Brexit would give him an opportunity to “reprogram” the economy, proclaiming that “we can get rid of the magical thinking of the free market that has led to a minority becomes extremely rich at the expense of everybody else.”

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One example of how a controlled market economy might work can be found in Labour-controlled Preston, where a set of so-called “anchor institutions” have been encouraged to procure services from local providers, which has led to an extra £75m being spent in the city. A recent report  commissioned by John McDonnell argues that once Britain is free from EU procurement directives, the government will be free to use public spending as a way of investing in local communities and advancing social justice without relying on the mercy of the global free-market.

And yet, leaving the European Union seemingly seeks to annul four decades of evolving multiculturalism and lost imperial prestige. It’s hard to imagine Fisher, who took his own life in 2017, being optimistic about what many see as yet another reverberation of a chronic cultural addiction to the past. He certainly would have recoiled from the more jingoistic elements, and we can only wonder whether he would have seen Brexit as a decisive blow to capitalist realism or just another set of patriotic trumpets playing a song that wasn’t particularly enthralling the first time.

In 2013, Fisher wrote of “an ideological wasteland in which neoliberalism is dominant only by default”. Since then, many alternatives to free-market capitalism have emerged from the both the left and right, but they have all further divided the country, locking us into a landscape of cultural and political paralysis. And so while the appetite for radical change is almost universal, consensus is more elusive than ever. In the meantime, we’ll only know if we’ve escaped from capitalism realism when the widening window of political possibility becomes big enough for radical and seminal cultural movements to burst through.