On October 25 of this year, an interdisciplinary group of Stanford graduate students gathered to discuss Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (2009), as part of a workshop called The Contemporary. Looming over our conversation was the feeling that the book seemed both timely and artifactual. As an attempt at theorizing the predicament of the present, it dazzles with descriptive insights. But as a cultural product, its problem-space is also blatantly ‘pre-’ certain pivotal historical moments that, vainly, we’d want it to address, and that the phantom limb of its explanatory power seems to grasp at: the Occupy Movement, the return of Western nationalisms, critiques of neoliberalism from the right, and the uptick of socialist rhetoric and political membership in US establishment politics. On the 10th anniversary of Fisher’s highly popular (in all senses of the word) and influential text, I want to sketch some of the salient points of our discussion, and to ask what critical purchase remains for the concept of capitalist realism in 2019, and beyond.
I’ll begin where we began together, by outlining the historical and theoretical contexts against which Fisher brings his arguments into relief. For the purposes of our discussion, I threw together a timeline detailing the historical moments and intervals that are most important to Fisher’s descriptive and prescriptive projects. (Yeah, I could learn a thing or two about graphic design.)
Fisher wants to understand era of capitalist realism as being pervaded by the conviction that “there is no alternative” to capitalism, as Margaret Thatcher had it. In the ideological terms laid out by Fredric Jameson (or was it Žižek?), capitalist realism is “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” We have, then, a likely starting point for the historical moment Fisher wants to name: 1991, or maybe 1989—in either case, the dissolution of (Soviet) communism as an ideological alternative to capitalism.
But beyond the failures of Really Existing Socialism, there were also pivotal developments in Western capitalism driven by what Fisher, following a litany of theorists, calls the neoliberalization of the political economy. Borrowing from Marxist economist Christian Marazzi, Fisher points to a particular day in October, 1979, as the moment when the American economy lurches out of a Fordist economy and into a post-Fordist economy. The baggage attending these concepts is massive, but Fisher restricts his application of them to a typically Marxist analysis of relations of production: Fordism was the era of assembly-line production, top-down management hierarchies, domestic industrial production, and career paths that resembled apprenticeship models; post-Fordism saw a turn to the casualization of labor, the flattening of discernable workplace hierarchies, the proliferation of internal and self-auditing, the outsourcing of production, the dissolution of the boundary between work and life, and the requirement to re-skill every few years in order to keep one’s job. For Fisher, it’s no accident that the turn to post-Fordism coincided with the flowering of neoliberalism, and its paradoxical coupling with neoconservatism in the Reagan/Thatcher years. This was a new moment for capitalism, and he wants us to feel it.
In a typical (if vulgar) base-superstructure view of society, the shift described here would seem to have consisted of such momentous changes in the modes and relations of production as to have produced a commensurate shift in the dominant ideology. But here we run into the stickiness of Fisher’s argument. We note that he relies on Jameson’s formulation of the postmodern as the most adequate framework for describing the latter’s contemporary moment (roughly, the late fifties through the late eighties). Ultimately, though, capitalist realism needs to be argued for; it needs to demonstrate that, at some point, the critical purchase of postmodernism flags, and that a better framework (its own), more adequate to the developments in capitalist ideology, is needed. But when it comes to making this critical move, the argumentative infrastructure built around describing the shift to post-Fordism falls from view.
Fisher quietly abandons the Marxist logic (i.e., that the substructural shifts of 1979 would have led to developments in the “logic of late capitalism” that Jameson’s theory might not have adjusted to), perhaps because, though he wants to advance on postmodernism, he is unable to disavow its explanatory power. And so instead of making an argument that tracks the development of productive forces, Fisher retreats into the realm of the ideological and the historically banal in order to demarcate his and Jameson’s theories. He ends up saying, then, that “there are three reasons I prefer the term capitalist realism to postmodernism”: first, when Jameson first advanced his theory, there were still alternatives to capitalism; second, postmodernism staged itself as a confrontation with modernism, whereas, under capitalism, “modernism is now something that can periodically return, but only as a frozen aesthetic style, never as an ideal for living” ; and third, that “a whole generation has passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall,” meaning that the twenty-somethings of the year 2009 will never have known an alternative to capitalism. For them, “[c]apitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable.” Whatever materialism means to Fisher in his delineation of an historical ‘before’ capitalist realism, it seems to lose significance for his theory as he turns his gaze on his present.
This is not the only moment in the book when Fisher’s reasoning seems to move in contradictory directions. In a now-famous series of passages, he argues for a structural account of the proliferation of depression—“the condition most dealt with by the National Health Service”—among British citizens. He laments the fact that: “By privatizing these problems—treating them as if they were caused only by chemical imbalances in the individual’s neurology and/or by their family background—any question of social systemic causation is ruled out.” And he urges that we struggle against the individualization of mental health disorders, which locates the solution in medication (and thus the pharmaceutical industry), and not in structural change. But how do we square this approach with his claim, later in the book, that the solution to combating the boredom, the “depressive hedonia,” experienced by students in the education system is to institute a kind of top-down “libidinal ascesis”? Rather than being another challenge to confront the real causes of our problems, this more authoritarian proposal, which Fisher insists will “quicken, rather than deaden,” is no challenge at all. It reads as a kind of alienation of agency from the agent—a more-than-strange proposal given the book’s project.
But for the most part, Fisher’s thinking is consistent: he lodges his project in a clear lineage of experience, and invests it with a familiar flavour of expectation. It’s easy enough to see how Fisher’s timeline and its catalogue of noteworthy events crystalizes around his critical aims. And one understands quite soon after cracking open the first page of Capitalist Realism that no event is more motivating for Fisher’s theory than the 2008 global financial crisis. It is from the vantage of this catastrophe that Fisher looks back on the mounting wreckage of late capitalism, and one suspects that it impelled him, in the first place, to believe that something changed in the way capitalism governed our lives, between 1991 and 2008.
The timing of Capitalist Realism’s publication just before the Occupy Movement strikes as something of a false start. Like Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey, it appears to end mid-thought. Fisher believed that capitalist realism had survived what was ostensibly a demonstration of its immanent incoherence, that, under its sign, the state funneled public money into private hands in order to bail the system out, and then edited this laughable moment out of its ideological “dreamwork.” But he also believed that the 2008 recession punctured, if only slightly, the capitalist realist envelope; it brought our attention to the self-contradictions of the system—and to the system as ideology—even if it didn’t bring an awareness of alternatives into view. In other words, this book ends after broaching the start of something, even if Fisher wasn’t quite aware at the time of what that might be.
Of course, Fisher would go on to write about Occupy, and then about the failure of Occupy. He would explain the limpness of Western leftism in terms commensurate with those already laid out in this book, and he would describe the rise of Trump as a recycling of old social forms. The world as he saw it before his suicide remained explainable under the rubric of capitalist realism, even as he tried his best to keep his vocabularies fresh. And yet one can’t help but wonder what his sustained re-analysis of capitalist realism, ten years on, might have looked like.
This wondering is about more than imagining what he might have made of Bernie Sanders, or of the surge in DSA membership, or of Jacobin’s self-affirming claim that the beginning of the end of capitalist realism is here. It is about imagining what a thinker with his verve, his knack for intellectual surprise, and his musical relationship with logic, might have trained his eye on this time, and what he might have done differently.
In our workshop, we wondered about the limitations of the theoretical inheritances that Fisher’s book claims for itself, and of the critical conversations in which it tries to participate. It’s no secret that Fisher loved his Žižek, but the reader in 2019 is often struck by the wider group of interlocutors whom Fisher takes most seriously: Jameson, Lacan, Deleuze & Guattari, Baudrillard, Spinoza (!), among other (mostly) white men. And this criticism is, of course, not simply a formality. One struggles to grant adequate critical authority to an analysis of capitalism that doesn’t engage with the oppressive realities it creates for socially marginalized people, or with the scholars who have done the work to theorize that oppression and its mechanics. What account of capitalist realism could be full without addressing how it (re)produces racism, patriarchy, and all manner of toxic domination that it justifies under the banner of its ‘realism’?
We also considered how Fisher’s claim that generational change led (naturally) to a deeper embeddedness in capitalist realism among the ‘twenty-somethings’ of 2009 might be challenged on its own terms, with some retrospection. His claim was that that generation came of age without any official alternative to speak of, and so couldn’t even imagine one. The same, in theory, should be true of, e.g., Generation Z. But can we really say that the alternatives have disappeared? Did the concept of socialism fall out of the world when the USSR did? Certainly not. And we might consider that the alternatives might even look better than before, precisely because their attachment to Really Existing state structures was cut long ago, and our ability to imagine new existences for them liberated from their old historical baggage is unimpeded. If, as Fisher says, capitalist realism could drop the postmodern fight against alternatives because the fight was no longer necessary, then we might imagine that it lacks the infrastructure—or maybe just the energy—to fight the homegrown resuscitation of alternatives right under its nose.
Whatever the present problems we’d have liked, impossibly, to stuff back into that little book, we’re left with what Fisher gave us, and we can’t fault it for not being the book we would have written, then or now. After ten years, capitalist realist ones or not, we know for certain only that capitalism persists, and that there are many of us out there still trying to understand and, if ever possible, overcome it. What Fisher leaves for us is, I think, twofold: methodologically, he shows us what it looks like—the unique challenges and the inevitable pitfalls—and what it takes to periodize one’s own present, with some grounding not only in how things really are, but in how they came to be; theoretically, he leaves us with a sharp vocabulary for diagnosing and addressing some of the most pernicious symptoms of capitalism in our time—notably climate change and our mental health epidemic—and for unraveling the ideological discourses used to disguise their source as individualistic, not structural.
Despite the book’s flaws, its theoretical promiscuity, and its occasional lack of rigour, we’d do well to recall that it wasn’t published for the specialized audience of academics, but for everyone. Fisher co-founded Zero Books to combat what he saw as the anti-intellectualism of public discourse and contemporary culture. He was a political radical, imperfect as any of them are, who wanted better for the world, and who did what he could to normalize critique of the system, to insert battle cries into the fabric of everyday life. Though he can, at times, be a bit of a ‘theory bro,’ across the breadth of his work one never feels condescended to. There is a tenderness: he cares about his students, about fellow victims of depression. He cares about all of us, trapped in the worst of realities and ready to find a new one, if only we knew where to look.
I’m grateful to the participants in October’s meeting of The Contemporary for developing a nuanced discussion of the book. The reflections presented here capture but a fraction of the total conversation. Due to space constraints, many vital contributions and differences of opinion are not reflected in this article.
 Fisher unpacks this somewhat, though he doesn’t explain why the stylization of modernism might not count as a form of confrontation with it.
 Fisher reads through Wendy Brown to identify and describe this paradox. As Brown has argued, the marriage of neoliberalism and neoconservatism is not logically possible, and is only achieved by finding a way to cover up, ideologically speaking, the friction between the two at their point of merger. Fisher and Brown argue that this covering up is part of the “dreamwork” of capitalist realism, which edits out its internal contradictions in order to give the appearance of smooth functioning.