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Some Notes on Capitalist Realism

This evening I read through Capitalist Realism again and it’s still as brilliant as on my first read, and I just wanted to jot down some off-the-cuff thoughts about it. The text deftly navigates and stitches together a wide range of topics and ideas, which is one of its many merits. One of the early issues it raises, and one which I think remains incredibly important ten years on, is on the material substance of ideology and Capitalism’s overvaluation of belief. Irony or cynicism do not in any way undermine Capitalism; indeed, distancing oneself in this way allows for its smooth functioning. Capitalism doesn’t need you to ‘believe in it’ subjectively, just that your actions continue to demonstrate your belief objectively.

“The role of capitalist ideology is not to make an explicit case for something in the way that propaganda does, but to conceal the fact that the operations of capital do not depend on any sort of subjectively assumed belief.” (pp. 12-13) I think this is definitely one of the most interesting upshots of a fundamentally Althusserian approach to ideology and its materiality. While ideology certainly operates on the symbolic and unconscious levels (though not merely as ‘false consciousness’), it also functions on the material level of our practices, rituals and habits. Irony and cynicism as a mode of ideological disavowal are definitely something I’d like to explore more in the future, here and elsewhere.

The musical genre of Vaporwave, for example, appears to represent a critique of nostalgia and commericalism under Late Capitalism; by raising to the level of consciousness and confronting us with our obsession with nostalgia (itself a result of Capitalism’s inability to deliver the future) and the ‘cancellation of the future’, it seems to represent a sort of immanent critique of that very nostalgia. But Capitalist Realism is not remotely threatened by such moves: whether you’re purchasing the music, or whether you’re only listening to it ‘ironically’ doesn’t matter. Critiquing Capitalism’s commodification of nostalgia by… commodifying nostalgia (‘ironically’) doesn’t remotely threaten the dominance of Capitalist Realism.

The conclusion of the book represents a kind of aporia in Fisher’s elaboration of Capitalist Realism, and I think it’s interesting in and of itself. The theoretical and political impasse both described in Capitalist Realism (between old forms of ‘resistance’ to Capitalism and the embracing of the ‘precuperated’ new), and demonstrated in the ambivalence of its own conclusions, is one of the reasons I’ve recently become so interested in Deleuze & Guattari, particularly de- and reterritorialization as intrinsic to Capitalism’s development, as well as so-called ‘accelerationist’ philosophy and its concern for the conditions of possibility for the emergence of the ‘new’. It isn’t desirable to return to Fordist Capitalism, and it’s not enough to simply hope to hold back the tide and maintain the current order; so where does that leave us in envisioning a new, better society, when Capitalism has not only already prefigured so much of our cultural ideas of what it looks like but is fully capable of pre-emptively incorporating and recuperating such ideas almost prior to their articulation? Fisher appeared unsure himself, hence the aporia; torn between the pessimistic finality of his own analysis and the practical necessity of pressing onwards with hope in the properly Messianic sense.

Go watch Simon Obirek’s video on Capitalist Realism, it’s brilliant.

One of the earliest points in the book has stuck with me ever since I first read it: “Capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics.” This obviously relates to ironic/cynical disavowal, but it also points to our cultural and subjective relation to history and historicality as such. I would tentatively suggest that in many ways, Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation of ‘The end of history’ with the triumph of Neoliberalism was in many ways a supremely perceptive diagnosis. ‘The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.’ It seems inherently incongruous to quote Heidegger in a post about critical theory, but here he appears to anticipate Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation:

“…when time is nothing but speed, instantaneity, and simultaneity, and time as history has vanished from all Being of all peoples; when a boxer counts as the great man of a people; when the tallies of millions at mass meetings are a triumph; then, yes then, there still looms like a specter over all this uproar the question: what for? — where to? — and what then?”

Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics

Consider how Fisher accurately captures one of the most important aspects of the utter meaninglessness of Late Capitalist life in his notion of ‘depressive hedonia’, characterised precisely by an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure. There is a sense that something is missing, but in Fisher’s words, “no appreciation that this mysterious, missing enjoyment can only be accessed beyond the pleasure principle.” (p. 21) Late Capitalism not only represents the collapse of beliefs at the symbolic level, it represents a total flattening out of reason itself (best captured by Horkheimer in Eclipse of Reason) and with it the impossibility of conceiving of happiness on any register but the hedonic. In such a situation, what else could there be except the means-ends, Utility-maximising rationality of Homo Economicus? No wonder the proliferation of mental illness Fisher so powerfully examines in this book.

One of the less obvious areas this relates to, but one which I think speaks to these broader issues, is tourism as one of the central modes of experiencing both ‘the other’ and the past; what better description for tourism in the 21st century than “the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics”? History as an artifact, the ruin as a hyperreal simulacra, and tourism as the ideological search for the authentic: ‘I’m not like the other tourists, I’m searching for the ‘real’ Tibet’ as an example of the search for ‘authenticity’ as the ideological mystification par excellence. Authenticity is a PR tactic, and as long as you believe it’s out there somewhere there’s always going to be ways selling it to you.

And, of course, on the level of the culture industry, so much of our western cultural notions of authenticity are already intimitately bound up with nostalgia; what else is the ‘Rockist’ obsession with ‘retro’ rock bands if not a pining for the past, for the authenticity that supposedly once existed, now placed out of reach by rampant commodification? What clearer contemporary example of the utter vacuousness and superficiality of the music industry today than that simulacra called Greta Van Fleet?

A final point: One of the central phenomena Capitalist Realism attempts to capture as a concept is the widespread feeling that there is no realistic alternative to Capitalism. But there’s a certain problematic ambivalence in the concept depending on how we are supposed to read it: In one light, it doesn’t seem to add much to the more developed theories of Ideology and therefore appears redundant; and if it’s got a kind of descriptive sociological character (‘we just can’t, as a society, imagine a non-capitalist future’) then it seems to have been fairly quickly falsified in the last 5 years by the emergence of an organised Socialist mass movement in Britain (though the extent to which this really represents a break with Capitalist logic is questionable.) While much of the rest of the analysis can stand by itself, I’m unsure how to evaluate the central concept after which the book itself is named. Perhaps it is to be best understood as a more detailed elaboration on the specific form of ideology under late capitalism.

By Matthew

I run this blog. Interested in political theology, critical theory, power, populism, ideology, science fiction, and extreme metal.

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