Mark Fisher: Capitalist Realism and Beyond

The following article is based on the manuscript for a presentation I recently did on the life and work of the critical theorist Mark Fisher, who took his life in January this year at the age of 48. Mark was my MA- and PhD-supervisor for the six years that I knew him, and had immense influence on my thinking on popular culture in particular (he was the one who coined the term ‘popular modernism’, which has become increasingly important to me over the past few years). This text is my attempt to discuss what I take to be his most important theoretical contributions and their continued relevance. There are, however, a few aspects of his work that I have left out – such as his brilliant take on Derridian ‘hauntology’ and his unfinished work on consciousness-raising and acid communism (which is discussed a little, but not enough) – but overall the following piece covers his work over the past 15 years fairly well.

When discussing the project of his that began with his k-punk blog around 2003 and reached a major audience with the publication of Capitalist Realism in 2009, Mark Fisher liked to characterize it as a project of negativity as opposed to pessimism. For whereas pessimism often comes down to seeing bad things where there are none, negativity, on the other hand, is about explicating structures, attitudes, and beliefs that already are present but that tend to be transparent or even disavowed. In this sense, Mark’s recent work was about pinpointing what he called ‘the inherent negativity of our times’ and the conditions that imposed this situation upon us. That is, the conditions of capitalist realism – whose negative effects Mark examined in brilliant detail in art, culture, politics, psychology, and so on. But in order to understand this negativity better, I think it is necessary to first take a step back and examine its wider historical underpinnings – for it is only then that we will be able to get the full scope of Mark’s work and the trajectory in which capitalist realism should be situated. So in what follows, I will aim to do so chronologically through what I take to be four concepts central to his ambitious project: popular modernism, capitalist realism, aggravated postmodernism, and accelerationism.

Born in 1968, Mark was part of a prominent generation of British thinkers – also including Simon Reynolds, Kodwo Eshun, and Steve Goodman, among others – who grew up in and were formed by the vibrant culture of post-war Britain. When describing the years of his cultural coming to consciousness, Mark often spoke enthusiastically about phenomena such as public television that would broadcast hour-long conversations with philosophers, a music press where he would first encounter names such as ‘Baudrillard’ and ‘Derrida’, a flourishing paperback culture for both fiction and theory books, and music cultures such as post-punk and rave that both challenged not only previous conceptions of what rock and electronic music could be – but our understanding of music as such. Altogether, these cultural phenomena formed a cultural ecology where theoretical concepts circulated in popular mediums and where popular forms were experimented with and transformed into something genuinely new. Crucial here was a renewed understanding of the concept of ‘pop’ itself, which was transformed from an uncritical affirmation of the status quo into a concept of critique and dissatisfaction with the present. And in that regard, Mark’s coining of the concept ‘popular modernism’ as the term that best condenses this cultural mind set is as simple as it is brilliant. For whereas classical modernist thinkers such as Theodor Adorno and Clement Greenberg are unable to think about the encounter between authentic and popular culture in other terms than the accommodation of the former to the latter, popular modernism instead indexes the subversion of the latter by the former and pinpoints a virtual trajectory that cut across British and other post-war cultures in which the modernist impetus to innovate and experiment flourished in numerous popular forms. Against classical modernism’s culture of exclusion – not just of popular culture, but also of various ethnic and gender minorities – and the then emergent postmodernism’s bland relativism, popular modernism designated a culture of inclusion that nevertheless did not give up on cultural norms and standards. Crucial here was, on the one hand, the explication of the necessary link – as opposed to gulf – between modernist experimentation and minority cultures for the purposes of not just the expansion but of the ultimate abolition of identity; and on the other hand the visions of utopian futures that fuelled these cultures. Through popular modernism, the population was exposed to brief but lasting glimpses of alien futures that promised to be radically different from the present, and of visions of a transformative humanism (in glam rock, Afrofuturism, cyberfeminism, etc.) where encounters with the alien outside promised to once and for all obliterate the tired and fictive axiom of the hegemony of the white male.

Yet all of this changed around 2000, when the hegemony of capitalist realism really hit the UK hard. It is not that these tendencies had not been present in previous decades – they certainly had, and Mark indeed often pointed to Fredric Jameson’s work on postmodernism as an early theory of what was to become capitalist realism – but the difference between Mark’s and Jameson’s work is that Jameson still theorized postmodernism and its late capitalist counterpart in relation to other cultural and political systems. In other words, there is still a residual conflict between (for instance) modernism and postmodernism present in Jameson’s work, whereas Mark’s point is that today there is only capitalist realism. Postmodernism, as he liked to put it, has been naturalized similarly to how Thatcher’s famous claim that ‘there is no alternative’ to capitalism has gone from being a preferential statement to something more akin to an ontological statement following relentless privatization, increased precarity, and what Mark calls ‘business ontology’: the idea that everything in society should be run like a business.

Capitalist realism is thus more than a politico-economical system. It is also an atmosphere or an unconscious belief that gradually has come to narrow the individual and collective imagination and expresses itself in the form of so-called ‘reflexive impotence’: Why should we care when everything will only be getting worse anyway? This sentiment is typical of the negativity that Mark’s work aims to explicate – along with the accompanying realization that things do not need to be this way. For as he usefully hints at in Capitalist Realism: whereas much of neoliberalism’s success is that it has managed to sell us its version of reality as the ultimate truth, reality is – on the contrary – never given once and for all but is always in a process of revision and reconstruction. This was indeed another crucial component of post-war popular modernism: the augmentation of our understanding and demands of reality and ourselves through art and culture, which expanded our ambitions and ideas of what the future may be like. In contrast, capitalist realism has gradually narrowed our experience of reality to a state of absolute exhaustion – indeed, to the point where the future no longer seems possible. It is thus crucial for us to locate the cracks and inconsistencies that inevitably are part of any kind of reality – even that of late capitalism – and expose the mechanisms behind them in order to begin challenging the dreary realism implemented by late capitalism.

One such inconsistency – discussed at length by Mark throughout his writings – is that of mental health. Drawing upon his personal experiences with depression, his work at a Further Educations College with an overabundance of depressed teenagers, empirical data covering the rise of depression in Britain, and the work of theorists such as Franco Berardi and David Smail, one of Mark’s most crucial theoretical contributions was his understanding of the socio-political causation of depression. Against the psychoanalytic habit to locate the root-sources to mental pathologies in childhood – and against CBT’s (Cognitive Behavioural Theory) tendency to merely aim to replace bad believes with good ones – for Mark the key to understanding and overcoming the pandemic of depression particularly among young people takes the form of an externalization of negativity: the problem is not internal (even though it expresses itself in this way) but external in that the horrible conditions of living and growing up under capitalist realism – and constantly having to worry about employment, income, social security, and so on, while rushing between short-term jobs and not believing that anything will ever change – must be understood as the root-source to the worthlessness and hopelessness that Mark so powerfully communicated in his writings and that made him somewhat of a spokesperson also for younger generations growing up under capitalist realism. Depression, anxiety, and other mental pathologies all index the depletion of cognitive resources in late capitalism similarly to the depletion of natural resources in industrial capitalism, and cannot simply be overcome by shaking things off and moving on as capitalist realist popular culture often suggests in terms of what Smail brilliantly calls ‘magical voluntarism’: the idea that we can all become whatever we want to be as long as we put enough effort into it. So overcoming this fatal strategy of responsibilisation – that is, neoliberalism’s method for tricking us into believing that we alone are responsible for all of our problems – is crucial for challenging the hegemony of capitalist realism. One way for beginning to do this is to rediscover collective organization and action. In a world where we often feel increasingly overworked, stressed, and isolated because of the capitalist ruling over work and technology – and the complete dissolution between work and leisure time that goes with it – coming together collectively and rediscovering our personal and collective value indeed needs to be a crucial starting-point for improving our mental health and social and political lives. Mark did indeed think in these terms as well. Inspired by the anti-capitalist organization Plan C, he more recently began talking about consciousness-raising as a viable political strategy. Historically rooted in the struggles of various minority-cultures – women, black, gay, and so on – this strategy both served as a way to educate participants about the power-structures they were embedded in, and to overcome their sense of personal alienation through collective empowerment. It is in this sense that the strategy of consciousness-raising could be mobilized against the responsibilisation and socio-political causation of depression deployed by late capitalism, because – as Mark’s friend and sometimes collaborator Jeremy Gilbert has argued – the value of consciousness-raising is precisely its collectivity and the realization that personal problems are in fact effects of larger socio-political structures – and that the way to actually challenge these structures are through collective organization rather than merely individual action.

Another such inconsistency – also crucial to Mark – is that of cultural stagnation. Whereas post-war popular modernism, as we just saw, was driven by utopian visions of alien futures, what is distinctive of popular culture under late capitalism – again, as Jameson correctly predicted in his work on postmodernism – is its inability to act as anything but a reflection of late capitalist reality and its tendency towards pastiche and retrospection. When Mark spoke of his early experiences of rave culture – jungle in particular – he liked to describe it as a feeling of a ‘future shock’: the future rushing in and fundamentally altering the conditions of the present. Yet this is completely absent from popular culture under capitalist realism, which instead is characterized by an obsession with the near past through constant cultural recycling. Mark’s point here is not that all forms of culture under late capitalism are bad, but rather that there is very little – if anything – genuinely new; that is, cultural material capable of producing the same kinds of future shocks as rave and previous forms of post-war popular modernisms were. Instead, what is distinctive of popular culture today – music culture in particular – is a kind of ‘formal nostalgia’: the unacknowledged hi-definition recycling of previous cultural forms that end up belonging neither in the past, the present, nor the future. This is Jameson’s waning of historicity at full force, in the form of an aggravated postmodernism where ‘retro’ no longer designates a particular kind of culture but instead has become the modus operandi of popular culture as such in the form of what Simon Reynolds has named ‘retromania’. Aesthetic experimentation is obviously crucial for overcoming this, but what is equally important is to rebuild the cultural ecologies of post-war popular modernism but geared towards today’s digital environment. Because one of the reasons why popular modernism enjoyed such prominence over such a great length of time was because there were enough social channels and structures to support it: free art-schools, squatting and cheap housing, publishing networks, pirate radio, and so on. So how to revitalize this vibrant sociocultural infrastructure at the present is another important way to challenge the realism imposed by late capitalism and prompt us to demand others instead.

I think that questions such as these are what Mark’s work most fundamentally poses, and also challenges us to respond to. It has thus come to be the task of a generation of younger thinkers – many inspired by Mark – to take on this challenge from a slightly different perspective. Here it is worth mentioning Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ ambitious demand for a post-work world liberated by full automation, the collective Laboria Cuboniks’ Xenofeminist fusion of science and identity-experimentation, the design theorist Benedict Singleton’s visions of space exploration, and Mark’s long-time friend Ray Brassier’s ambition to rehabilitate Prometheanism as a viable philosophical program (that is, the idea the there is no pre-determined limit or divine blueprint to what we humans can achieve and make of ourselves). First emerging publicly in a 2010-conference in London, these series of overlapping ideas soon came to be known as ‘new (or left) accelerationism’. The term itself has since become somewhat fuzzy and unclear because of the plethora of different thinkers associated with it – many of whom disagree on fundamental points – but the most basic sentiment of accelerationism – the idea that capitalism should be accelerated rather than rejected because it sets in motion numerous processes (scientific, technological, social, etc.) that, if utilized for the purposes of human rather than economic development, would have immensely productive consequences for the whole of mankind – remains a crucial strategy for the contemporary left. Not because we should uncritically accept everything that capitalism is trying to sell us, but rather because the left needs to recognize that it is operating with an increasingly outdated set of cultural and political resources – what Srnicek and Williams call ‘folk politics‘ – that are inadequate for challenging the global hegemony of capitalist realism and for imagining a world fundamentally different from the present one. What is necessary instead, as they argue, is a left at ease with technology, science, complexity, and abstraction: a more modern left capable of delivering beyond the failure of neoliberal modernization and of repurposing late capitalist society for the purposes of building a post-work, post-capitalist world.

While sympathetic to these ideas, Mark never got the time to write about them extensively. But he certainly intended to and at the time of his death, he was working on a manuscript on post-capitalist desire entitled Acid Communism, that – as far as I know – was to engage with these ideas against the backdrop of the 60s counterculture, and was based on drafts of earlier manuscripts that he had been working on for several years. Sadly, this is a book that we now will not get the chance to read, but it is possible to extract early versions of what probably would have been some of its central arguments from some of Mark’s many published articles. For example, in a 2012-text entitled ‘Post-Capitalist Desire’, Mark criticizes the prevailing leftist tendency to take the desire for things like technology, branding, non-places, and synthetic food as synonymous with a desire for capital. Sure, the shift from Fordism to post-Fordism has been synonymous with a radical intensification of desire on the part of capitalism, yet Mark’s point here – following philosophers of desire such as Deleuze and Guattari – is that the way to overcome this is not by turning our backs against desire but rather to emancipate it from its flimsy deployment by capitalism and recognize it as an active inorganic force that constantly defies homeostasis. Indeed, desire needs to be emancipated from capital for the purposes of building a better, post-capitalist world – rather than being thwarted at the benefit of some kind of archaic primitivism. Hence, the ultimate upshot of this for Mark would be a world where artifice and technology is fully integrated into everyday life as part of an alternative public sphere beyond old-school state centralization, and where individual and collective ‘technologies of the self’ (to use Foucault’s formulation) would be deployed for the purposes of the expansion and remaking of human consciousness.

The question of an alternative public sphere was something that occupied much of Mark’s thinking; for, as we saw earlier, it was precisely such a public sphere that fuelled the success of post-war popular modernism, but then slowly was obliterated by capitalist privatization and technological domination. This trajectory was something that Mark dedicated his life to subverting; not just in his writings, but also in the way that he published his work (he very rarely published in academic journals because of his frustration with their lack of circulation beyond closed academic circles), his engagement with political organizations and the art world, his blogging, and his central role in the success of the Zero Books-imprint (that later became Repeater) – which still publishes books at the intersection between the intellectual and the popular in the style of popular modernism. It was indeed interesting to note after his passing how many of the authors on Zero/Repeater came out and said that their books would not have existed if it had not been for Mark. Yet despite his massive success as a theorist, public figure, and as a human being, Mark always saw himself as an outsider – even after landing his first full-time academic position at Goldsmiths University and Capitalist Realism selling over 20,000 copies – and sadly never overcame his insecurities and ultimately ended up losing his lifelong struggle against depression. Beyond the immense human tragedy of this, it also saturates his short but compelling authorship with even more melancholy and ghostly hauntings than what already was present in the texts themselves, and solidifies the image of the popular modernist subject as part of a dying breed of intellectuals under the ruthless hegemony of capitalist realism. But to end on the same note as where we started: here we need to differentiate between pessimism and negativity, insofar as the worst thing that we can do now is to fall into widespread pessimism. Rather, we need to mobilize negativity by recognizing the many problems in our world and invent various tactics and strategies for overcoming them. For as long as we continue to believe in the possibilities for a different world, then Mark will always be with us.

To access the Mark Fisher-playlist in the video archive, click here.

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