Things are Worse than Thought
Reviewed in the United States on 1 April 2019
The Problems Presented by Capitalist Realism:
Reality v realism. Reality is the truth. Realism is that which presents itself as being true. Realism is an invisible ideology or an ideology in disguise and is used to cover up reality.
OK, so lets abandon and abolish capitalism, then what? Unfortunately, the situation is far worse and far less simple than the late Mark Fisher realized. His premise is that capitalism has become that only viable means of economic organization with no imaginable viable or coherent alternative. Fisher states it best in his own words “…easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” I think Mark Fisher fails to distinguish between capitalism in its neo-liberal variant and capitalism in its social democratic form. Both neo-liberalism and social democracy are built on a capitalist foundation; social democracy is not built on socialism. It is neo-liberal Capitalism that metastasis, devours, and subsumes into itself all that comes before it. We see this is the commercialization of all ideas, the commoditization of all values and conventionalization of all people. We have come to the point where alternative structures of economic organization cannot be imagined because under capitalism, there is a market for rebellion, resistance and recalcitrance. Protest itself can be commercialized, priced and sold as a commodity. This is the catharsis created by capitalism. Anything thrown at capitalism in dissent is consumed by it and regurgitated into a new form useful to the propagation of the capitalist order. The most effective means of sustainment for the capitalist order is the ability to co-opt any efforts to get around or outside of it by internalizing such attempts through commodification and commercialization. Under late capitalism, addiction to surplus desire and the resulting intoxication with excess subjectivity, guides much of our social interaction. This addiction to surplus desire in not at variance with our current form of realism, it is this realism that is at variance with reality. Surplus desire creates a fetish for consumption and consumption creates its own imperative. Our social interaction is now dominated and defined by our addiction to cheap consumer goods, making us forget that other ways of life are possible, enabling us to ignore the fact that we are ensnared in the logic of the current capitalist system by our fetish attention to, and growing addiction with, the must-have newest technology and most fashionable consumer goods. In our current society, happiness is found in our freedom to interact in and use the marketplace to chase our our addiction to excess desire. Social bonds and the human community are merely a byproduct of this paradigm. First, we create machine ‘thinking’, then we change our thinking to imitate or match it - this will untimely make human thinking expendable. This I believe is why Fisher says “…easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” As Max Horkheimer observed, we cannot know what a good and just society would look like when looking out from our current position, we simply lack the means to do so. This means that any critique of capitalism takes place from a position of imminence which thus implicates both capitalism and the critics of capitalism. There is no transcendental position from which to critique capitalism, but this seems to be what the author is seeking. Cooperation and reciprocity provide a healthier foundation upon which to build social consensus rather competition and confrontation as neo-liberal capitalism preaches. Neo-liberalism is economic pseudoscience presented as 'natural law'. At the same time, neo-liberalism is fast becoming neo-feudalism, not neo-fascism.
The Problem is Worse, but not for the Reasons the Author Believes:
What we find is that capitalism is rooted in the contradiction at the very heart of the Enlightenment which is a utilitarian mode of thought focused on self-preservation as well as the development of increasingly sophisticated means of social organization. The individual is elevated with no concept of individual purpose. The extension of this is a world in which reason itself leads to irrational actions and potential calamity. We cannot simply outlaw this reality, theoretically reject it or philosophically dismiss it as Mark Fisher seems wont to do. In this sense, capitalism is not an ‘-ism. It is just a label that we use to describe what happens naturally when humans are turned loose onto nature, with scarce resources, to fend for their survival. In other words, capitalism is just what people do. In this sense, the roots of what we call capitalism are anthropological. Mark Fisher's error is in thinking of capitalism as an ideology. Reality itself is disappointing, this is the real human tragedy. The advent of a post-humanist and post-modern world should really come as no surprise. Hierarchy, exploitation and inequitably seem to arise each time this experiment is run. Unfortunately, capitalist realism becomes capitalist reality. The very real pressures and difficulties presented by capitalism as documented by Mark Fisher are in great measure the very real pressures and difficulties presented by the contradictory demands made upon human existence under any form of economic or social organization. That is, hierarchies, inequalities, and imbalances will manifest themselves no matter we organize ourselves. There is no doubt that injustice and instability are an integral part of the current economic world order. Worse yet, injustice and instability are necessary components to sustaining the unsustainable world order. Even the melancholy reflection that our wealth is based on suffering is asking too much. We have already stumbled in and out of another abstraction, Socialist Realism. Capitalist Realism and Socialist Realism merely have different alignments of elites with different routes of mobility. Each produces its own set of pathologies, viz., the commodity fetish, the constant growth imperative, capital accumulation and economic elitism under Capitalist Realism; the labor fetish, stagnation disguised as sustainability, power accumulation and political elitism under Socialist Realism. The differences are the result of different managerial strategy. The owners of capital is no more in control of capital than the voter is in control of politics, technocratic corporatism is applied to both Capitalism and Socialism. We can replace the over marketization of Capitalist Realism with the over bureaucratization of Socialist Realism or have a combination of both in varying degrees which best explains our current predicament. In any case, labels such as capitalism and socialism over simplify a spectrum of economic modes of production, social forms of organization and political systems of governance. This is to say that the socio-economic world is not a given, it is not something that it is ‘out-there’ to be understood and inspected rationally. It is the construction of human actors. Human subjectivity must be considered. Unlike inanimate objects or lifeless critical theories, our experience of the world is an outcome of our experience of ourselves, our experience of others, their experience of us as well as our combined and interactive experience of the world as we can only partially know it. To employ a cliché, directing an eloquent and well thought out critique of any flavor of ‘Realism’, is to see the forest and overlook the trees. The challenge is that both the trees and the forest must be accounted for any theory.
Another way in which to see this problem is to consider that all that is accomplished under socialism is that the capitalist reality is centralized at the level of the state and managed for the benefit of officials of the state. The capitalist realism that Fisher bemoans is the same economic dynamic but decentralized from the state and put, to some extent, in private, or non-official, hands. Both, state capitalism and private capitalism are a curse of the human condition, the only question is which is less pernicious and the empirical results of several experiments suggests to me that some from of state regulated private capitalism is less pernicious than state capitalism. Pure state level capitalism has resulted dictatorships disguised as people’s democracies, too numerous to name here.
The problem is worse because this just is the nature of the human condition. Why do we participate in our own oppression? Self-oppression in the pursuit of happiness is the key driver in our society while all the time thinking we are free. We cannot overcome capitalism because we think in a capitalist terms, this is our framework for viewing life. In short, because we have to labor on to sustain life and labor itself is the oppressive burden. This much at least, seems to be ordained by nature. Capitalism grows out of the simple everyday necessity of work and production to sustain existence. I am not celebrating this relationship, but it just does seem that labor and work are simply welded to the human condition. For lack of a better term, we call this nexus capitalism but whenever work is required, order and hierarchy follow. A force to actually sweep aside this need for resources, work and labor (capitalism) exits only outside the world of human experience. Do we really think that once 'capitalism' is pushed aside, the need to create, work and manage the resources necessary to sustain life will be alleviated. This seems to me to be most reckless and naive of all hopes. The end of 'capitalism' has foretold many times and its still with us because we are still mired in the human condition of our making. With Fisher’s vision, the best we can do is to alter what work is, but it will still nonetheless, be work.
Another aspect of the problem is that modern capitalism has produced a person that Erich Fromm called the ‘marketing character’. I take this to mean the one whose job is connected to buying and selling. This person becomes adapted to the market economy by becoming detached from authentic emotions, truth and convictions, everything is transformed into a commodity, things and people; knowledge, feelings, skills, opinions. These are not selfish people, it is just that their immersion into the market place world of enumerated transactions creates thin relationships with other people and themselves, ones lacking in care. Fromm also identified the ‘productive character’ I take this to mean the one whose job includes care giving and teaching. For these people, Being is more important than having. This creates thick relationships of depth with other people and themselves. I have found that both are essential to the human story. The former help produce the surplus wealth necessary for the latter to exist. I do not celebrate this nexus, just acknowledge it; my heart with the latter.
The Reality is Us:
It is not so much an abstract thing called ‘capitalism’ or ‘socialism’ that is to blame. This is to miss the target. The answers are to be found where the solutions are to be found, with us and within us. It does no good to say that capitalism is rapacious but efficient or that socialism is benevolent but inefficient. Capitalism and socialism are just labels and abstractions from reality (realism). The reality is us. If we want more humane politics, more rational economics, and a more just social order then we must become more humane, rational and just people. This is the only way in which we can smooth the rough edges of any abstract systems of realism, e.g., rapacious capitalism or benevolent socialism. The method of political, economic or social organization is just beside the point. We can have any so called abstractly labeled ‘system’ or ‘model’, complete with all the trappings of critical theory and philosophical speculation that we desire, but the outcomes will be governed by who we are as human beings. But in fairness, this is a point of disagreement between the author and me. He would no doubt say that I am just dreaming, that is not long before the system takes over the people and deadens them; that the system has a life independent of the Individuals who comprise it and make its very existence and operations possible. “… not long before the grey petrification of power starts to subsume them.” However, to accept the Mark Fisher’s analysis, we must first believe that the ‘system’, on whatever principles it is organized, and with whatever procedures it operates, has an existence, even a consciousness, independent of the individuals who organized it and operate it. That is, there is a public that is more than the aggregation of individuals and their interests. I grew fatigued in reading how this opaque and amorphous entity called ‘capital’ was responsible for every social, economic, cultural and political ill that plagues the human race. This is a reductionist over simplification. Who is really doing the dreaming here?
Author’s Potential Rejoinder:
In any case, I am sure that Mark Fisher could rejoin me by claiming that I have just proved myself to be stuck in the logic of Capitalist Realism. I can see where I may have only smuggled capitalist values into my critique of capitalism. After all, late monopoly crony capitalism completely organizes society at such a fundamental level that it shapes our entire experience of being and thus our ability to see the possibility of a different experience of existence. The stereotypes and narratives of our current culture are needed in order to make the very thing that is unnatural, the extant system of crony capitalism, with its many and varied means of domination and cruelty, seem not just appealing, but also necessary and precisely what it is not: the natural order. That I have subordinated myself to a ‘reality’ that is no such thing; a reality that is capricious, amorphous, contingent and changeable at any moment with every new ‘reality’, with new values, each accepted as the true ‘reality’. Perhaps, but we have no choice but to be stuck in some sort of realism. For example, I can identify something we can call Educational Realism. An educational system that indoctrinates students by convincing them to put themselves onto the market as commodities, valued only as much as whatever skill their overpriced education has brainwashed them with while at the same time turning them into indentured servants owing to the fraudulent nature in which students must go into debt to obtain an education only useful for a lifetime of alienating labor to repay the debt. Perhaps the capricious, amorphous, contingent, changeable precarious nature of ‘reality’ just is the reality of the perpetually unstable and contingent human condition. I am not advocating capitalism as the solution the human condition, but I also recognize socialism is not a solution and that are no easy solution to be had, collective or individual. I am merely asking; when do we start to become realistic about reality instead of pining for alternatives to reality itself as believe the author finally implores?
An Alternative Realism:
The combining of global capitalism with authoritarian nationalism to a form a new realism (Zizek has pointed this out), that which I call Neo-Mercantilism Realism. Zizek has identified China is the prime example of this new model. As an alternative, it may not be preferable but is at least coherent if coherence is to be our highest value and if we must have an alternative to Capitalist Realism at any cost.
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