What is Capitalist Realism?
"It's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism." But why? And what if we could imagine something else? I talk with Iggy Perillo about Mark Fisher's brilliant book.
At the end of this month, there's a relatively good chance that UPS employees who are members of the Teamsters union will go on strike. If this is news to you, know that it was also news to me. I learned about what could be "the largest strike against a single company" from Adam Johnson at. Of course, a strike at any of the delivery service companies would disrupt the flow of goods through the economy. It would create headaches and hassle.
As Johnson notes, that's the point.
By withholding labor and messing with the usual course of business, workers force a company to negotiate. This is the chief power workers have if a company isn't readily willing to bargain in good faith.
However, Johnson points out, the media don't report on strikes in a way that focuses on the workers and their exercise of the one power they have. The media report on it from the point of view of... us.
"Instead of centering the underpaid, overworked UPS worker," writes Johnson, "the person centered is the holiest of the holies, The Consumer, the protagonist of reality."
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If UPS workers strike, the headlines warn, consumers are in for a rough ride.
Now, that's true! But again, the hassle is the point. Journalists have an option—they can either point to solidarity actions that consumers could take to support the strike, or they can instruct consumers on how best to keep consuming. Any guess which approach media outlets overwhelming choose?
ABC. Always Be Consuming.
While reviewing Mark Fisher's book Capitalist Realism for a podcast interview, the theme that stuck out to me most was consumption’s role in blunting our imaginations. Fisher argues that, because we have so fully integrated the identity of the Consumer into our notion of self, it's impossible to imagine a system of political economy that doesn't continue to facilitate our access to cheap goods on demand.
Other components of late capitalism feel a bit more contingent: the stock market, investment banks, or even student loan infrastructure. But it's hard to imagine a life in which you can no longer waltz into a Target at 9:45pm to pick up a $10 t-shirt with some climate-friendly graphic on it.
Our right to buy what we want to buy might be the most inalienable of rights today.
Our right to buy1 is what kept stores open during the first phase of the pandemic and created massive growth in online shopping, which led to hellish working conditions for warehouse workers and delivery drivers.
Our right to buy inspired the bipartisan relief bills that funneled money into the wallets of every American. While it's nice to think that money was intended to keep food on tables and roofs over heads, the practical impact of the "relief" money was sustaining consumption.
Our right to buy is weaponized against efforts to increase the minimum wage or provide universal healthcare. It's easy to get people and politicians to rally against anything that might lead to a small increase in prices.
I think we have to ask ourselves whether we're more valuable to the economy as producers of value or consumers of stuff.
And for all the hand-waving about the dignity and importance of work, it's clear to me that we value most people more for what they buy than what they make.
Consumption is the language of our political economy. So when we talk about capitalist realism, we're not talking about the pervasiveness of some abstract system of exchange. We're talking about the ways our inalienable right to buy defines our culture, our politics, our families, and all of the other institutions we hold dear.
It seems impossible to imagine a future in which that isn't so.
But Fisher offers other ways to think about capitalist realism, too.
First, he references a "phrase attributed to Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism." Fisher writes, "...that slogan captures precisely what I mean by 'capitalist realism:' the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it."
Later, he describes capitalist realism as "dreamwork" and a kind of "memory disorder." "Capitalist realism," Fisher writes, "entails subordinating oneself to a reality that is infinitely plastic, capable of reconfiguring itself at any moment." This is what happens every time a social movement antithetical to capitalism (or at least consumer capitalism) is reappropriated as marketing messages and products to buy.
I should note that I'm wearing a t-shirt that reads, "It's not feminism if it's not intersectional," as I write this.
That, too, is capitalist realism—the drive to display one's politics rather than perform one's politics. The need to own the symbols of one's values rather than enact one's values.
Capitalist realism, in short, is the "pervasive atmosphere" that has us believing, as Margaret Thatcher said, "there is no alternative."
The 19th century was full of earnest attempts to organize society differently. The early 20th century saw the perversion of those attempts. By the mid-20th century, the envisioning an alternative to capitalist liberal democracy was almost entirely shunted to the margins. Today, I think many of us—even beyond the anti-capitalist bubble—are trying to imagine something different but bumping up against a sort of void of imagination.
Capitalist Realism, the book, ends on—perhaps surprisingly—a hopeful and encouraging note.
The long, dark night of the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity. The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the gray curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.
Folks, I truly believe that is the situation in which we find ourselves today. Anything is possible so long as we take those tiny tears and rend them wide open.
Talking about Capitalist Realism
For the record, I am always available to discuss books that move me and change the way I see the world. Consider that my preemptive positive RSVP for your podcast.
Anyhow, I had so much fun with this conversation that I asked Iggy if I could share it on What Works, too. You can listen to the full episode on the podcast, or keep reading for a transcript of a few of my favorite parts of the conversation that I've edited lightly for clarity.
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Iggy Perillo: I think one of my favorite lines from the book is that control only works when we're complicit with it. That was one of my most favorite lines.
What needs to be kept in mind is both that capitalism is a hyper-abstract impersonal structure and that it would be nothing without our co-operation. — Mark Fisher
And because there's this huge dichotomy throughout the book in regards to control:
Are we being controlled, or are we controlling ourselves?
Then there's this other idea around being surveilled and also an internal sort of surveillance—how we internalize this sense of control and surveillance in our lives. We accept all these things as part of capitalist realism and the reality of this world that we can't escape or don't understand a viable alternative to it.
Tara McMullin: Fisher is drawing on Foucault and Deleuze when he talks about surveillance and control. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault labels our culture a "disciplinary society."2 He references the idea of the panopticon, which was a circular prison with cells all around the outer circle facing inward, and then a guard tower in the middle. The idea was that everyone could be surveilled all the time, but the inmates wouldn't actually even know if there was anyone in the guard tower. So through the image of the panopticon, we can sort of start to notice how external surveillance starts to become internal surveillance.
Then Deleuze morphs the disciplinary society into the "control society." And with that idea, he highlights how, instead of being externally surveilled or externally controlled, we are now internally controlled.
As I was reviewing the book again for, for this conversation, I started to think about another book that was written a few years later than Fisher's book, which is called Psychopolitics by philosopher Byung-Chul Han.
Psychopolitics is all about that sort of internalization of managerial surveillance and control. Like how do I make myself the best worker that I can be right now? I think for anyone who has agonized over whether they're productive enough or efficient enough, or whether they've done enough or achieved the right things, that is the narrative of capitalist realism—that pervasive atmosphere of self-control.
Iggy: We are so part of the system that we can't disentangle from it. It's internalized. And so we are living this external reality that we don't necessarily like. But we've still pulled that reality into ourselves. You can say like, 'oh, I don't like it,' and as long as you have sort of this veneer of denial about it, then you just go on and do whatever you want. Because you've already said you didn't like it, so check, that's done. Now you're just cruising along in this capitalist realist world anyway. But don't worry—you said you didn't like it, so it's all fine now. And there are products that we can buy that prove that we don't like it.
Tara: Fisher refers to that as "interpassivity" which is a term coined by Robert Pfaller in 1996. Fisher extends interpassivity to the realm of consumer goods. The things that we buy can perform actions for us rather than us performing those actions.
Fisher cites Wall-E as an example of this. He cites Bono's RED products, which were big at the time that he was writing. But now we might think about all of the direct-to-consumer brands that are focused on being super mission-driven. Those are still capitalist enterprises that feed us marketing messages over and over again: buy stuff, buy stuff, buy stuff.
If you buy this, then you are supporting the national parks. You are supporting the fight against climate change. You're supporting Black Lives Matter, all of that.
Consumption really just reproduces the status quo.
That was one of my takeaways as I was reviewing the book—just how much of the capitalist realist framework that he builds is around our identities as consumers first.
Fisher talks about how the public has been transformed into consumers. And I think it's that point of view—The Consumer—that makes it so difficult to imagine an alternative.
The fantasy being that western consumerism, far from being intrinsically implicated in systemic global inequalities, could itself solve them. All we have to do is buy the right products.
— Mark Fisher
Iggy: Fisher sort of examines these things that we do and magnifies them to show how ridiculous they really are. He uncovers the ridiculousness underlying so many of these goods.
We're basically painted into this corner. We're in the system. We can't imagine a different system. We can't like just buy the right things. We can't just say we don't like it. "What now?" I guess, is the tiny little question, right?
Tara: I think that Fisher's argument is really built around the idea that the capitalist system keeps us from acting toward meaningful political involvement.
I've written before about how busyness—that worker-bee, internalized managerial mindset—has a function in the economy. And one of the functions of busyness is to keep us uninvolved in politics. Poverty is such a great example of this because there are countless studies on how to reduce or eliminate poverty.
We actually know how to do it. It's the political will that's missing. It's not money. It's not big unanswerable questions. We know exactly how to do it, and we don't—because all of our economic policies are aligned with maintaining a growing consumer economy rather than eliminating poverty.
But in terms of the everyday, one of the things that I do to be conscious of this is thinking about what I am feeling compelled to buy. Just super simple. If a big piece of this is our identity as consumers, then well, I can start with my consumer identity as a way to push back.
When I want to buy a new pair of jeans, or I want a new piece of jewelry, or I want this, or I want that, I have to ask myself why. "Why do I want that?" It's okay to want the thing—like, that's fine.
But who suggested or what suggested that I wanted that thing? Was it an ad that's been following me all around social media? Is it that that brand got really good at appealing to people like me? Am I wanting to buy this thing because of what it says about me? Am I wanting to buy it because I'm tired and burnt out and want something that's gonna help me feel a little bit better?
That's a really useful piece of information too. So anytime I'm thinking about spending money at this point, I'm really trying to locate where that desire to consume comes from. And that doesn't always change my buying decisions, but that makes the system visible. And part of what is going on with capitalist realism, with this whole milieu of systems that we find ourselves in, is that we don't see them.
We've come to believe that this is just the way things are and even that this is the way things have always been and will always be.
Fisher talks about how capitalism subsumes both history and the future. So if I can make those systems visible to myself, then in that very small personal yet political way, I'm able to question that system for myself.
We have to recognize that doing things the way that we think we're supposed to do them is probably not aligned with the values that we have. And it doesn't mean that we can be 100% perfect anti-capitalist. There's no such thing.
It does mean that we can make more intentional, make more recognizable, the ways in which our actual values tie to our actual actions.
Iggy: The actual values that we are actually living in the moment. Not those aspirational values, which in my world is always ‘integrity’ and then ‘one thing based on a weird experience you had as a young person,’ right?
Those are your values. We know that every organization has that. Like that's what their poster is gonna say. That's what their website's gonna say. Honesty, integrity, and working out your garbage. Honesty, integrity, and supporting people who slip and fall in the mud because that happened to me once.
But I think you also bring up this interesting point about creating alternatives.
‘Alternative’ and ‘independent’ don’t designate something outside mainstream culture; rather, they are styles, in fact the dominant styles, within the mainstream.
And then he goes on to talk about Kurt Cobain for a while:
Cobain knew that he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance, knew that even realizing it is a cliché.
So we're at the record store. I go to the 'alternative' section. 'Alternative' becomes this beautiful window dressing label for being independent. Or the classic, Apple's slogan, 'think different,' Within this system, 'think different' means 'buy my thing.'
The reality is 'alternative' is a ploy to pull you back into the dominant way of being, the dominant way of thinking, which is capitalist realism.
Tara: When people think about there being an actual alternative or like the opposite of 'there is no alternative,' they're looking for a system that's already been proven, a system that already works. What is the framework that we're gonna use to rebuild society?
And, I think David Graeber talks about this quite a bit, there is no alternative that’s already fully formed. We don't know what it looks like yet. We have lots of great theories for thinking about it, dismantling what we have, and creating constraints on what could be.
But just because we don't know what the alternative is, doesn't mean that there isn't one, and it doesn't mean that we can't work together to find it. But the actual alternative is not going to be a genre of music or a type of clothing or a section that you can shop on Amazon, right? If it is a commercial product that you can buy, even metaphorically, it's not actually an alternative.
The thing about what is truly alternative is that it is not something that we can recognize.
But working toward it doesn't require that we can recognize it yet.
I think that when we're talking about alternatives or reimagining things, it starts with questions. It doesn't start with answers.
John Locke believed that “property” was an inalienable human right (along with life and liberty) and that political society existed to protect property. His meaning was likely less about the accumulation of property than it was about the respect of others’ property. Some scholars “hold that when Locke emphasized the right to life, liberty, and property he was primarily making a point about the duties we have toward other people: duties not to kill, enslave, or steal. Most scholars also argue that Locke recognized a general duty to assist with the preservation of mankind, including a duty of charity to those who have no other way to procure their subsistence.” There is also a theory that Jefferson cribbed Locke’s “life, liberty, and property” for the opening of the Declaration of Independence—but changed “property” to “pursuit of happiness” at the urging of some of the other signers.
My brain went blank as I was talking about Foucault’s idea and said “surveillance society” instead of “disciplinary society.” My guess is that no one cares—but I needed to issue a mea culpa!