by Jade Spencer
K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher
Ed. Darren Ambrose, Repeater, 2019
Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment
Francis Fukuyama, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2018
Like a Thief in Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Humanity
Slavoj Žižek, Allen Lane, 2018
For those of us who came of age in the post-2008 crash years, recession and austerity were the familiar, ominous background noise to our adolescence. Born under New Labour, we have been offered no genuine alternatives to neoliberal ideology in popular political discourse over our short lifetimes. Experts tell us that our planet is on the precipice of environmental catastrophe, but governments are failing to act. It was this post-capitalist and pre-apocalyptic paradigm – normality for our generation – which led cultural theorist Mark Fisher to write in 2013, that ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.’ Fisher called this worldview Capitalist Realism: the double-bind whereby a pervading exhaustion with capitalism is coupled with an inability to see beyond its horizons. Postmodernism no longer fits as a descriptor, as Fisher (borrowing from Jameson) agrees that what were once anticapitalist motifs have been commodified and absorbed by popular culture. In other words, no real counter-culture to capitalism exists. Although his most famous work – Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative – is not in K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher, his belief that this outlook dominates our lives is at the heart of the essays collected in this huge, 800-odd page book.
Eccentric Marxist and pop-philosopher Slavoj Žižek was a huge influence on Fisher. Žižek believes we are living in a post-ideological age, one characterised by a structural disavowal of the effects of capitalism, which simultaneously offers no alternative. In turn, both leftist authors have had much to say of the ex-neoconservative Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 claim that with global liberal democracy we had reached ‘the end of history’. For Fisher, this exemplifies the assumptions of capitalist-realist society. Žižek takes this further. In Like a Thief in Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Humanity he sees a ‘New World Order’ emerging, one that is
no longer the Fukuyamaist one of global liberal democracy, but that of the peaceful coexistence of different politico-theological ways of life – coexistence, of course, in the context of the smooth functioning of global capitalism.
To Žižek, the only struggle that can exist in a depoliticized capitalist society is the struggle between cultures – be these ethnic, religious or otherwise. The globalised market has taken up the mantle of identity politics. In some ways, this is an argument Fukuyama elaborates on in Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (albeit from a lens less critical of neoliberal forces and more of individual groups), saying: ‘Demand for recognition of one’s identity is a master concept that unifies much of what is going on in world politics today.’ Nonetheless, all three books are seemingly disparate: Fisher’s principally as a collection of specific online pop-culture criticisms that he artfully relates to broader issues in political and critical theory, Žižek’s very heavily grounded in Hegel and Marx’s philosophy and a call to revolution, and Fukuyama’s the voice of more conservative liberals, concerned and surprised by the direction of current events. However, released at the end of 2018, and amidst a tumultuous period for western and global politics, they all draw on the common theme of attempting to define and explain the unique era we are living through and its ideology: is this capitalist-realist, a Žižekian post-humanity, or one concerned with the validation of identity above all else?
‘Exiting the Vampire’s Castle’ is Fisher’s best-known essay. It was first published on his blog in 2013 and caused widespread controversy with its critique of the contemporary left “where class has disappeared, but moralism is everywhere” – especially in leftist twitterstorms, where commentators are quick to make objective moral judgements. The Vampire’s Castle is a metaphor for ‘bourgeois modes of subjectivity’ which have ‘contaminated’ left-wing thinking in recent decades by over-emphasising identity politics. After the piece was published, he was accused of crypto-fascism, but his lengthy and complex critique merits an equally nuanced analysis. This is not to say that his argument doesn’t descend at points into histrionics, reductive class essentialism, or just mud-slinging at those on the left he sees as trying to deflect from their own ‘invariably wealthy, privileged or bourgeois-assimilationist background’. But his argument is more than the sum of these parts. Fisher was not trying to attack those who seek justice for oppressed groups, but rather the capitalist system itself (as well as racism, homophobia, misogyny et al.) For Fisher, a neoliberal invasion of leftist ideology means that ‘while in theory it claims to be in favour of structural critique, in practice it never focuses on anything except individual behaviour.’
While they are certainly not fascists, Fisher is perhaps both guilty of at times over-simplifying a complex issue. Indeed, in his chapter: ‘From Identity to Universality’, Žižek makes similar claims. At one stage, he convincingly takes down the ‘neo-liberal’ conception of feminism. According to Žižek, ‘neo-liberal’ feminism individualises the issue of gender inequality, seeks privatised political responses to it, and ultimately calls for women to seek liberation through the free market. Although he argues that this is not what he is doing, he uses a somewhat clumsy example to conclude that class is essentially more fundamental than gender. He sees class as distinct to other identity categories, as class struggle is the only one which seeks to eliminate not just the category of ‘ruling class’, but of the oppressed group itself. If the struggle was won the proletariat would cease to exist. The logic of this is self-evident, and begs the question. Gender, race and sexuality are indeed immovable in comparison to one’s position in the economic hierarchy. Why then should the end of capitalism bring equality for all?
Fukuyama, in stark opposition, believes the modern concept of ‘identity’ is something which needs to be more deeply understood if we are to realise the more fundamental divisions of our times:
Demand for recognition of one’s identity is a master concept that unifies much of what is going on in world politics today. It is not confined to the identity politics practiced on university campuses, or to the white nationalism it has provoked, but extends to broader phenomena such as the upsurge of old-fashioned nationalism and politicized Islam.
Surprisingly, there are echoes of this in Žižek, but he sees the support for independence movements in Europe as a positive force. He turns the question of Catalonian independence on its head: The desire for a unified Spain is ‘part of the ongoing drive to assert the power of nation states’ over and above European unity. What we need in order to accommodate new local sovereignties… is thus simply a stronger European Union.’
In recent history, only wars and revolutions have brought about rapid, radical social change. For Žižek, revolutions are preferable, as war between countries of such huge nuclear capabilities will ‘probably mean the end of civilisation as we know it’ – a fact he reiterates throughout the book, expressing incredulity at how easily we forget the imminent possibility of global destruction. Fisher also looks to the past to predict future changes. His unfinished ‘Acid Communism’ is also included the collection, an exploration of the 1960s and ‘70s as a period when capitalist realism did not yet exist as forcefully as it does now. He draws inspiration from this period: ‘the new bohemia’, in his view ‘seemed to point to the elimination of the bourgeoisie and its values’. He admires the ‘bravura intelligence, ferocious energy and improvisational imagination of the neoliberal counter-revolution’. Sly And The Family Stone are used as an example of how ‘popular music could now be social comment; even better, it could feed off and feed back into the social transformations that were dissolving former certainties, prejudices, assumptions.’ The triumph of the neoliberal west in the subsequent forty years, which destroyed the experiments in democratic socialism and libertarian communism of the late sixties, rendered alternatives to capitalism unthinkable for future generations.
It is difficult to read Fisher’s articles about mental health, which he had argued had become depoliticised, in detachment from his suicide in 2017. Fisher wrote often about his own depression. He found it was most easily combatted when framed by political, impersonal narratives rather than those provided by individual psychology. The most common routes for coping with mental illness – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Psychoanalysis and, most frequently, medication – all take this individual approach. At no point does Fisher say that these cannot work on some level for the individual, but he believes they miss the ways in which ‘social power’ is likely to be causing widespread misery. He borrows the radical psychiatrist David Smail’s term ‘Magical Voluntarism’ to describe how many sufferers feel at fault for their own sadness or distress, and believe that the solutions are in their hands alone. Žižek repeats the same line: ‘we are not just controlled by impenetrable social powers, our very emotions are ‘outsourced’ to chemical stimulation.’ Depression, Fisher notes, is a ‘plague’ of post-Fordist society, ‘the shadow side of entrepreneurial culture, what happens when magical voluntarism confronts limited opportunities.’ Their stance, which echoes Foucault’s belief that mental illness was a fundamentally political state, feels convincing in the era of austerity. Since the introduction of fit-to-work assessments in 2008, the number of attempted suicides by those seeking disability benefits has more than doubled.
What marked Fisher out as a thinker, and made his blog so popular, was his prodigious ability to apply critical theory to even the most banal or seemingly trivial facets of post-capitalist pop culture. His journey from the working class into the bourgeois world of the academic commentariat means he applies the same academic rigour to dissecting hardcore Jungle as he does to Thatcherite ideology. It is something that Žižek has less of a talent for, often (and in his own words, “shamelessly”) copying in a lengthy Wikipedia plot for a film then using it to make less piercing analyses: the precariously-employed actors in La La Land for example, show ‘no hint of solidarity’ with each other. Fisher’s writings on popular films, music, TV and books, on the other hand, expertly intertwine theory with aesthetics, using the popular narratives we are bombarded with every day to expose deeper truths. Fisher has noted how ‘The villain in Hollywood films is routinely the “evil multinational corporation”’ and as such, the films performs our outrage at capitalism for us, creating a false sense of action in its viewers. His analysis of the blockbuster hits Wall-E and Avatar are particularly engaging. Wall-E appears to serve us a criticism of capitalism in its depiction of future humans ‘as obese, infantilised chair-bound consumers supping pap from cups’ on an earth ravaged by climate change, but it subscribes to this paradigm of false progress. He develops the theory in his analysis of Avatar: ‘It is in presenting this pseudo- opposition … that Avatar functions as an ideological symptom.’
Reality TV is another fascination of Fisher’s: Benefits Street, for example ‘projects a radically depoliticised world of individuals and their intimacies.’ Simon Cowell’s genius in creating The X Factor is ‘to have plugged a very old cultural form into new machineries of interpassivity.’ The popular TV talent show renders us passive through the illusion of interactivity provided by its format. He was obsessed by The Hunger Games, and how the films offer ‘an intersectional analysis and decoding of the way that class, gender, race and colonial power work together’ as a call to build new collectivities through class consciousness.
What’s missing from the arguments made above is that during this period of ‘neoliberalisation’ – in popular ideology as much as in politics and economics – we have witnessed huge technological advances: social media, artificial intelligence, big data. Žižek alone raises the idea that the now direct link between our brains and this ‘digital machinery’ has led us into a detatched, posthuman-capitalist era. Elon Musk is the archetypal post-human capitalist. Billionaires like Musk are hijacking anti-capitalist rhetoric to convince us that instead of getting rid of capitalism, we can just remove human labour from it. Such ideas add an interesting dimension to Fisher’s Capitalist-Realism thesis: that technology plays a crucial role in undermining our perception of reality. Fukuyama revealingly ignores the role of technology in Identity, and by refusing to confront capitalism head-on, his book can’t explain the root causes of our current situation. On the other hand both Žižek and Fisher raise more questions than they answer about life under late capitalism – but the ever-present (if more insidious) hegemony of capital still endures as the most compelling model for our world today.
Art by Alex Haveron Jones
JADE SPENCER studies History at Wadham. She spent her childhood obsessively dressing up as Pip from Great Expectations.