The Capitalist Realism of “Capitalist Realism is Ending”

Following the latest flurry of accelerationist fear-mongering and hypocrisy (previously discussed), no one has pinpointed the cognitive dissonance being displayed across leftist social media with more accuracy than Alexandra Chace.

Their immaculate tweet shall be pinned here for posterity:

I’m sure everyone has seen the “capitalist realism is ending” cheerleading on social media by now. It’s everywhere — and not just in Mark Fisher meme groups. To be honest, I’ve been surprised Mark hasn’t been trending with the amount of mentions Capitalist Realism has been getting across various networks in the current crisis.

The kernel of the observation is correct, of course — at least to an extent. These sorts of events and tragedies have repeatedly shone a bright light through the cracks in the system, but pointing at that and cheering can be just as much a part of the problem if you’re not careful. Indeed, as Alex makes so clear: it’s the very same attitude that many of the left will then go on to chastise the right for in the next breath.

This is what we were all talking about back in 2017. After Mark died, from Trump’s election to Grenfell and beyond, the cracks in the system were harder to ignore than they had ever been before, and we all talked about what Mark might have said about it all every minute of every day. Capitalist realism was crumbling all around us and he wasn’t around to see it. We watched as Fully Automated Luxury Communism became a meme (something Mark had already enjoyed a great deal) and then, the next year, Ash Sarkar called herself a communist on national TV. Discussions around the left’s preferred alternatives to capitalist hegemony were entering the mainstream — whether they were taken seriously or not is another matter but that’s less important in our present moment than actually establishing the idea of another world being possible in the minds of the general public.

By definition, that is all it takes for capitalist realism to end: the waning of a faith in capitalism having all the answers over anything else. In this sense, capitalist realism has been ending since the financial crash of 2008 and that seed has finally started to bear some mainstream ideological fruit. But there’s still a way to go: simply pointing at capitalism’s failures does nothing unless you’re filling its (and our) lacunae with alternative forms of action.

This is to say that the left has done alright at pointing out capitalism’s contemporary limits in a crisis but it has also struggled to capitalise — no pun intended — on the territory it has gained when things settle down a bit. (The election of Sir Keir Starmer to the Labour leadership in the UK the other day certainly seems to have placated an establishment that has been increasingly desperate to get back to neoliberalism-as-usual without all this ideological disruption all the time.) As such, for someone who first thought this three years ago, coming to terms with the reality is disheartening: we just keep talking about the end of capitalist realism and then pointing at it, talking about it and pointing at it, to the point that now it feels like that’s all anyone is capable of doing.

If we read beyond the first page of Capitalist Realism, we discover that shouting “capitalist realism is ending” and leaving it at that is just another form of reflexive impotence. Meanwhile, the system itself adapts and holds steady, in its “frenzied stasis”, just as it always has done. “Capitalist realism is ending” becomes the new capitalist realism.

This is my central problem with the popular readings of Mark’s work. They internalise the catchphrases that were so powerful in hooking people’s attention but then they ignore all the rest of it. They perpetuate the problem Mark was critiquing in Mark’s own name.

The truth, as the last three years have taught us, is that capitalist realism isn’t ending — it’s adapting to the times, as are we under its influence. The response from leftist social media in this regard is as impotent as the rightist fever dreams the left tries to “critique”, betraying a complete lack of engagement with the real critique that lies within Mark’s thought.

Reading Mark’s later work in particular, the accusation is clear: your touchscreen capture only entrenches the system even more.

Other modes of communality in cyberspace are possible and our current quarantine offers us the time and resources to imagine them — even make them happen — but your Facebook groups are far from an instantiation of that “digital psychedelia”. (I’d argue the schizoid nature of Twitter, at its best, gets close sometimes but I’m biased.) In fact, it’s interesting to remember Mark’s basic critique of Facebook, following his exit from the experiment that was the “Boring Dystopia” Facebook page:

Fisher casts Facebook as a distorted reality following an alternate sense of time, where old news is endlessly recirculated and human nature is subject to automated processes. The filter bubble is more developed and distracting than ever before: reality is being rewritten by what companies pay for us to see. Fisher sees it as a microcosm of “capitalist cyberspace,” perhaps even of capitalism as a whole. The endless production of information from users ceases to be useful when that information is biased by use of Facebook itself.

The punchline to the Boring Dystopia group is that by using Facebook in the first place we are likely already too boring to appreciate it.

Mark expanded this argument in far more detail (and more impersonally) in his essay “Touchscreen Capture” and, in our current moment of quarantine, where the importance of social media within all our lives has only grown, the relevance of that essay has only grown along with it. Mark writes:

One trap laid by communicative capitalism is the temptation to retreat from technological modernity. But this presupposes that frenzied attentional bombardment is the only possible technological modernity, from which we can only unplug and withdraw. Communicative capitalist realism acts as if the collectivisation of desire and resources had already happened. In actuality, the imperatives of communicative capitalism obstruct the possibility of communication, by using actually existing cyberspace to reinforce current modes of subjectivity, desocialisation and drudgery. 

This has never been more true than under our current circumstances. A captured subjectivity, cybernetic desocialisation, work-from-home drudgery: these are the defining qualities of life under quarantine; an intensification of business as usual, which has only made the lacunae of our daily lives even bigger.

Take Zoom, for example: what are the implications of us trying to (re)build a sociality through a “conference call” app? It would be a great irony for these tools to be repurposed for the establishment of a newly collective subject but, at present, the reality is that conference calls become the basis for a new kind of connection. If anything, it undermines the modes of connection we relied on pre-Covid.

This is to say that, whilst you cheer what appears to be the final death knell of Capitalism Classic, new Capitalism Zero (better known as communicative capitalism) intensifies and continues it’s ascendancy.

Maybe we should reflect on that contradiction and its accelerationist implications — how the intensification of this communicative system is changing our very nature — instead of batting back and forth the same misreading of accelerationism that the dumb left invented for the dumb right to adopt.

My two cents are already out in the world. After all, we saw all this happening in 2017 too and wrestling with these questions is precisely what Egress does. In fact, I’ve been struck in recent weeks that many nice messages I’ve received about the book have started with: “I was really wary of it at first but…” I know why people are wary; I know the book on Mark Fisher that people are expecting (and which some people would even prefer). Egress is a preemptive strike against that book whenever it emerges: a book that clutches onto an incomplete snapshot of Mark’s thought and ignores the ways he adapted his thinking with the times. If he can’t do that anymore, it’s up for us to do it instead, otherwise our preoccupation with Mark’s legacy will keep us stuck in a moment when he was alive.

A case in point: the questions we had in 2017 remain pertinent in 2020: How does the truism of capitalist realism — that our system is broken — transform its actual affect — pervasive melancholy — into action? How can we ensure that this moment, in which the “lacunae” of capitalist realism are more visible than ever before, is sustained long enough for us to have an impact? How do we stop ourselves from being nothing more than rabbits in the headlights of a self-fulfilling prophecy? How do we make ourselves worthy of the process unfolding around us and make sure the growing gaps are filled with more and more alternatives?

Ask yourself that instead of prematurely celebrating the stumbling of a zombie when you’re not even aiming for the head.

Update #1: An addendum.


  1. This is the first time I’ve read your site. A vivid and inspiring post. I am hungry for more.

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