I’d like to thank everyone who came out to Nova pošta last Thursday evening to my lecture on Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, recently translated into Slovenian by Pika Golob and Nina Hlebec and edited by Gregor Moder. Maska, who have published the translation, are currently holding a reading group around the book as part of their fall seminar programme. (You can find more information about that here.)
I have wanted to visit Ljubljana for a few years now. I first became aware of the city’s scene after being invited to write for ŠUM#9 back in 2018. (An important essay for me, which I’m currently turning into a book.) Since then, I’ve also written texts for Radio Študent and, most recently, the Plaza Protocol project.
I had the absolute best time in Ljubljana, even though my stay was incredibly brief. In fact, it was briefer than was already anticipated. I had hoped to travel overnight, arrive at my hotel mid-afternoon, have a nap and then present and drink beer. In the end, my journey went something like this: I arrived at Manchester airport at 12am, since no trains ran early enough to catch my 6am flight and I didn’t want to drag my girlfriend out of bed at 3am to drop me off; I flew to Paris, but my flight was delayed in the air; having landed at Charles de Gaulle, I had to change terminals, and arrived ten minutes after my gate had closed for my connecting flight; from there, I panicked.
The first thing the Air France receptionist said was that the next flight wasn’t until the next day. I could have cried, honestly. I had been preparing for this lecture for weeks. In the end, they figured out a work-around that meant I could still get to Ljubljana by the evening. My only option was to wait in Paris for 4 hours, fly to Zurich, then from Zurich to Ljubljana, arriving at 18.50, ten minutes before my lecture was scheduled to start. It was either that or heading home. Thankfully, Maska delayed the start of the lecture by one hour. After landing, we headed straight to the venue, where I had a double espresso and a shower and jumped on stage a little dazed and with my hair still wet.
(All photos were taken by Amadeja Smrekar.)
Update: You can now watch the talk here.
I am a nervous traveller as it is, so I did not manage to sleep through any of this, but in the end, everything went relatively smoothly. I’d like to thank Aleš Mendiževec and Alja Lobnik for their amazing hospitality. I’d also like to thank everyone who attended, not only for being there but also for understanding that I was more than a little scatterbrained after twenty hours on the road. Thanks, too, to those who stayed to hang out afterwards and drink beer and Monster. Despite my journey, I still didn’t make it to my hotel until 2am, but this was very much by choice. You were all wonderful company and I only wish I could have stayed longer. If we met and spoke together, feel free to reach out by email or on social media. It would be great to stay connected.
Unfortunately, given my battered and bruised mental state, I was not wholly satisfied with the way my lecture went. I struggle to function mentally on such little sleep, and so, whilst my lecture was recorded, the idea of sharing my coffee-shot pauses and meandering train of over-tired thought makes me feel quite embarrassed. Though I think I expressed the core of my argument, and the discussions had afterwards were fruitful, I regret that I wasn’t able to perform to a certain standard as I would have liked, especially given all the effort of flying me out there.
What I’d like to do is share some of my talk below, folding in a few further reflections and additional points raised during my official Q&A with Aleš and the more informal conversations had with those in attendance afterwards. I hope the updated text is a testament to all that I learned and all that I found so interesting in finally getting to experience a snapshot of Ljubljana’s vibrant intellectual and cultural scene.
Until next time…
Is there (Still) No Alternative?
Capitalist Realism is, in essence, a book about stasis – not just as some naturally occurring point of equilibrium, where moving objects come to rest, but as a political choice and as an orchestrated illusion. Capitalism’s ideological consistency depends on its appearing to be the former when it is really the latter. That capitalism is realistic means that capitalism is common-sense, natural, and its reasons for existing are pre-established. Presented with the problem of how to organise a society, we’re told that capitalism just works, because it is, for better or worse, perfectly attuned to human nature. And yet, whilst capitalism makes the case for its own stability, it sacrifices the idea that improvements can still be made. In this sense, stasis becomes a byword for peace, but our current system affords little questioning of the kind of peace we have come to accept. In fact, it actively smothers any opportunity to think differently.
What we’re talking about here is ideology. But what’s interesting about “ideology” is that it is not a very stable concept; it has a complicated history, and its meaning has shifted repeatedly over the centuries. Ironically, considering how it is used today, “ideology” was first a liberal concept, coined after the French revolution by Antoine Destutt de Tracy to describe liberalism’s rational commitment to a “science of ideas”, which described a loaded framework quite similar to what we might now call the “marketplace of ideas” — a framework within which ideas can be debated and challenged without the underlying capitalist foundation itself coming under fire.
That we live in a “marketplace of ideas” today is part of the problem at hand. How can we hope to think outside of capitalism’s free market dynamics if any understanding of thought itself is restricted to those same dynamics? This critique of ideology is not new either, however. It wasn’t long before the word “ideology” became an insult used ironically to dismiss liberals who were high on their own reasoning in the late 18th century, and in the 19th century, Karl Marx appropriated it explicitly to refer to a narrative or set of ideas used by the bourgeoisie within a capitalist society to legitimise their own dominance.
Over the course of the 20th century, our understanding of “ideology” became more generalised and was given many more definitions along these lines, but it was always used to refer to liberalism’s hegemonic dominance with capitalist societies. Then, at some point, the concept was generalised even further. It has since become an insult detached from its initial critique, which is used to insult anyone with an identifiable set of political convictions. If the word is ever used by the mainstream media today, for example, it is often by newsreaders talking about the latest terrorist attack, where we’re told that some violent individual adheres to an extremist or far right or Islamist ideology. In these instances, to say something is ideological feels like another way of saying something is “pathological”. Ideology is detached from any social critique and repurposed by neoliberalism to mean any set of militant ideals whatsoever. But in transforming ideology into a kind of mental illness, something that is relevant to us all becomes something to deny outright. Liberalism, which coined the term to refer to itself, now defines as ideological anything that exists outside of its bounds. That “ideology” is used so ideologically cancels something out, and in the process, ideology seems to disappear altogether.
It was this disappearance of “ideology” as such that Fisher was interested in when he wrote Capitalist Realism. We might argue that his aim is to deconstruct capitalist ideology whilst, at the same, reconstructing political consciousness. In other words, his aim was not to deconstruct only to expand the void of centrist impotency, but produce a new critique through the reconstruction of our socio-cultural and political agency.
This is notable today because Fisher’s goal runs contrary to what most critics of critics of ideology now believe. He is not simply destroying the old worldview but actively trying to construct a new one, based on the material circumstances of the present. More often than not, leftists thinkers are denounced for doing the opposite. Jordan Peterson comes to mind as the most recent shill to denounce this kind of approach — primarily because Aleš had some funny stories about Peterson’s bizarre appraisal of Ljubljana’s “brutal(ist)” Soviet architecture (read: generic tower blocks) when he came to visit. He is the perfect example of an ideological critic (rather than critic of ideology) whose entire project depends on obscuring his political commitments behind superficial appeals to common sense and rationality, all while attacking the left as being wholly irrational in its war on facts.
In his best-selling book 12 Rules for Life, for example, Peterson equates postmodernism with “the long arm of Marx”, using it as a catch-all term for the dishonest persistence of leftist thought after its successive humiliations during the twentieth century. (In this sense, he is the quintessential capitalist realist.) Leftists display a contemptable arrogance in daring to parrot their theories down the years following the unearthing of Stalin’s gulags, he writes. Beneath the thin veneer of progressivism, what he calls “postmodern neomarxism” is a truly “nihilistic and destructive” philosophy that ignores history and the very processes of organisation that we now use to understand our world. In this sense, postmodern neomarxism “puts the act of categorization itself in doubt”, he continues. “It negates the idea that distinctions might be drawn between things for any reasons other than that of raw power.” Though a generic statement, seemingly applicable to the difference between apples and oranges, this comment can only really refer to social categories like class, race, etc. That these categorisations were created by market capitalism is irrelevant to Peterson. That they structure our reality is the primary reason they must not be trifled with. As such, the ongoing spread of leftism’s patho/ideology leads to the very seams of reality coming apart, which only exacerbates societal misfunction. But really all Peterson is complaining about is that leftists do not engage in the marketplace of ideas as they should, exchanging ideas with reason and civility within a pre-established framework that is less scientific than it is purely ideological.
This is tellingly what Slavoj Žižek is best known for writing about in his masterpiece, The Sublime Object of Ideology:
the social effectivity of the exchange process is a kind of reality which is possible only on condition that the individuals partaking in it are not aware of its proper logic; that is, a kind of reality whose very ontological consistency implies a certain non-knowledge of its participants — if we come to ‘know too much’, to pierce the true functioning of social reality, this reality would dissolve itself.
This is similarly the philosophical foundation of Fisher’s text. But rather than stop at the moment reality caves in on itself, Capitalist Realism describes the forms of life that lurks behind its false consistency, ready to be taken up and explored, if only we had the confidence to seize them.
Prior to my arrival in Ljubljana, Aleš and I discussed how best to approach and introduce Capitalist Realism in an explicitly Slovenian context. To talk about ideology here is to risk contributing to the flogging of a dead horse. Generally speaking, Aleš suggested that a Ljubljana audience was likely to be more familiar with Fisher’s theoretical reference points. As the home of Žižek and Mladen Dolar, the implicit influence of post-Lacanian psychoanalysis on Fisher’s mid-2000s thought is probably more apparent in Ljubljana than it would be to an English-speaking audience; the same may be true of the influence of Alain Badiou and Fredric Jameson. Though most of these figures are quoted in Fisher’s text — Žižek and Jameson in particular — an in-depth knowledge of their work is by no means necessary to understand it, but in extending Fisher’s work today, it is more common that academics will further engage with this background and make explicit what Fisher uses only implicitly.
With all this in mind, I decided to take a more counter-intuitive approach to Fisher’s text. If the philosophical background is more readily available, what is less discussed outside of the UK is surely the particular UK context Fisher was writing in and about. Indeed, Capitalist Realism is, more often than not, heralded as one of the great critical texts of the 2008 financial crash. Whilst this may be true for a global readership, in the UK the book has more often been read as a critique of the New Labour years in particular. The financial crash was the event that once again raised questions the Labour Party had buried a decade earlier.
These questions are important, but in uncovering their roots, former prime minister Tony Blair’s impact on UK politics in the 1990s is overlooked (internationally at least) in favour of Margaret Thatcher’s. This is understandable, since Capitalist Realism‘s subtitle explicitly turns Thatcher’s infamous slogan, “There is no alternative”, into a question. But Thatcher’s emphatic insistence that there is no alternative was in defiant response to many who claimed otherwise. She certainly oversaw the establishment of neoliberalism as a political norm in this country, but her time in office is also renowned for resistance and discontent. (Lest we forget the frequent rioting and the fact she was nearly assassinated in the Brighton bombing of 1984 by the IRA.) The banal horror of the New Labour years was that the very contentiousness of this slogan seemed to dissipate. Blair had no comparable resistance.
In this sense, Fisher’s reframing of this old Thatcherite slogan as a question does what the Labour party could not (or refused to do). Labour were the alternative, democratically speaking, but in the grand scheme of things, their differences were negligible. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, it seemed that, if communist and socialist ideals were dead abroad, there was no need to stay true to them at home either. And so, in amending Clause Four of the Labour Party’s constitution, Blair reneged on the party’s socialist principles and laid the foundations for two decades of centrist political dominance. He continued the Thatcherite advance of free market economics, whilst occasionally making a few reforms here and there. Though we can acknowledge that Blair’s Labour made some improvements to the lives of working people in Britain, these were capitalist reforms rather than steps towards socialist abolition. This only served to further entrenched the politics of neoliberalism and further concretised its ideological hegemony.
Fisher, a decade later, asks the question Blair ultimately refused to. Capitalist Realism was written at a time when Blairism was finally be coming to an end, and when capitalism’s (but also neoliberal centrism’s) ideological consistency was being called into question and a new era of protest and critique seemed to be on the horizon. At that time, it was anyone’s guess which way things would go, but by 2010 it was clear that, whilst the world had been changed by the financial crash, the ideology of capitalism held firm (or at least firm enough, in the popular imagination, that change was left off the agenda.) In 2010, the Conservative party re-entered Downing Street, in a coalition with the cowardly Liberal Democrats; it has remained there every since. As the politics of austerity spread around Europe, the same response was repeated ad nauseum: there is still no alternative. But this moment was significant in the UK — with the trebling of student tuition fees coming into force in 2012, the political consciousness of young people was energised in a way that Fisher had tried to encourage just a few years earlier. (I have written about this once before.)
The political landscape further changed for the better (and better late than never) when Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the opposition in the mid-2010s, encouraging a return (and update) of Labour’s erased socialist principles, but the brain rot of capitalist realism is still apparent today.
Over the decade since Capitalist Realism was published, we have been told repeatedly that we are living in times of unprecedented political antagonism and polarisation, but this polarisation is instead the rebirth of politics as such. The lie that we are all in the middle now — that we are all middle-class, centrist, reasonable and sensible liberals — has been demolished and political struggle (class struggle, even) is back on the agenda, but we still struggle to see our present circumstances beyond the lens of capitalist realism. Still, things are not as they once were. It is clear a new language and a new framework that reflects the realities of the twenty-first century is actively being developed and struggling to emerge. “Capitalist realism”, as one entry among a whole dictionary of Fisherian neologisms — including “business ontology”, “reflexive impotence” and “market Stalinism” — was a vital early contribution to this process of expanding the critique of ideology and making it wholly contemporary.
This is the UK context of Capitalist Realism. But explaining this to an audience in Slovenia, I wondered out loud how interesting this context was to the majority of attendees. It is a story about the end of history, yes — the end of an era where things “happened”; the stifling of events in favour of a totalising narrative — but these processes, and the flashpoints of change and potential that occur within them, are much more legible in other contexts. In fact, Slovenia is the perfect example. Whereas, in the UK, these changes were framed as relatively minor and progressive, following a path set out by our already well-established capitalist past, Slovenia’s transition out of its socialist period makes its attempts to conform to EU standards of capitalist neoliberalism far more explicit and politically legible. Whilst Tony Blair was rewriting the Labour Party’s constitution, Slovenia was rewriting its national constitution. The decisions made by our respective Nineties governments appear ideologically similar, but in Slovenia the stakes were clearly much higher and there was room for transitional and autonomous forms of resistance to keep existing, rather than be smothered under a tsunami of neoliberal reformism.
Consider Ljubljana’s protests of 2012-2013, for example. Whereas the rest of the world was protesting against a global capitalist totality — although Occupy was, by that time, starting to wane, with local interventions struggling to find purchase — Slovenia held its own government’s feet to the fire, criticising not just the totality but the presently corrupt formation that this relatively new parliament had settled into. In the UK today, accusations of parliamentary corruption are becoming more frequent, but they are always dismissed out of hand as hysterical hyperbole. Individuals shirk responsibility and rely on the consistency of the system behind them, as if this is how things have always been done. But with Slovenia’s government only a few decades old, there was less of an expansive ideological foundation to fall back on. This new political reality was the alternative to decades of socialist governance, but this meant that another way of doing things was still present in living memory. Though many may not have desired a return to the socialist period, that didn’t mean that this new capitalist reality was the last democratic decision they ever wanted to make. On the contrary, Slovenia remembers how to go about making change and bringing alternatives to the fore.
But Slovenian politics at that time seemed to follow a rhetorical process similar to that of governments elsewhere. Just as Britain rejected its socialist principles, in seeing its own (relatively) socialist principles fail to win elections, Blairism failed to understand that not all collectivist politics are essentially socialist. The communist or socialist policies of a given moment may explicitly appeal to certain ideals, but these ideals can hardly be contained by formal political principles when they in fact predate Marxism by centuries.
In researching Slovenia’s response to this same observation, I came across an interview with Vesna V. Godina, who summarises the context of the early 2010s protests as follows:
[T]his is a textbook example of the lack of any sense of what is acceptable for Slovenians in politics. We have a political elite that, in the name of ideology, opposed everything that the old political elite did. By doing so, it made it impossible for it to adopt those practices and behaviors that were, however, functional and socially productive in the previous system, not only for the people, but above all for the political elite. That you listen to people, that you take them into account, that they have channels of co-decision, that decisions, if at all possible, are made not by overvoting, but by consensus, and so on — these characteristics were not acceptable to the new political elite because they were socialist in their eyes. Which is not true. The story of collectivism as a socialist pattern is wrong. These patterns are pre-socialist, they come from the Slovene village community, from the tradition of direct democracy at village assemblies, where every villager had the right and even the duty to participate in decision-making. The principle of the permanent participation of all in decision-making comes from the village community, not from socialism.
The mistakes made by the new Slovenia’s parliament echoed those made by the British government during the same period. Not only was the Labour Party rejecting its internal socialist principles, but it was continuing to wage war on a rave culture that likewise encapsulated this sort of village excess, the carnivalesque, the pre-socialist expression of communal joy.
In this sense, what is even more striking about Godina’s argument is that it resembles so much of what Fisher explored over the course of his career. In his eclectic writings on the counter-culture, on post-punk, on the death of rave, etc., Fisher has always attempted to give new form to what is otherwise “unpresentable” — to quote Jean-François Lyotard — within the lingua franca of global capital. But what is spoken about in Slovenia with clarity and historical significance struggled to find purchase in the UK at that time. Though Capitalist Realism would grow into its clear global relevance, it is nonetheless true that Fisher wrote his book for a nation where these changes had passed most people by, and where other forms of politics had been successfully eradicated from the political imagination — especially among a new generation of the young (my generation, born in the late 80s and early 90s). In Slovenia, this was clearly not the case. Is it any wonder, then, that Fisher was so inspired by Žižek and his writings on ideology? In some ways, one could provocatively argue that Slovenia had more influence on Capitalist Realism than the book has had on Slovenia up to now.
Still, this is not to suggest that Slovenia does not need a book like Capitalist Realism. Rather, I am left curious as to what its new availability might contribute to a wider understanding of Fisher’s work and our enduring political problems in the 2020s. This is true of all recent Fisher translations. Prior to the event in Ljubljana, I’ve only spoken about Mark’s work outside of the UK once before, in Germany, where his biggest international fanbase has always been located. But since his death, many more translations have been produced. (I feel like I have inadvertently begun to collect them. At the launch of my book Egress in 2017, Tariq Goddard handed me the Korean translation of The Weird and the Eerie; more recently, I have contributed an introduction to the Spanish translation of the third K-Punk volume; and I have returned home from Slovenian with a copy of Kapitalistični Realizem, with editor Gregor leaving a lovely message of solidarity on the inside cover.) Opportunities for international solidarity are proliferating as his work finds new audiences around the world.
However, as wonderful as it is to share this passion for Mark’s work internationally, it is also quite funny to me. Mark is so often discussed — even dismissed by his critics — as a quintessentially British (and therefore parochial) writer. That he would be increasingly popular outside of this context, where lots of the material he draws on isn’t necessarily that widely available, is as surprising as it is a pleasant “fuck you” to those cynics who think his outlook is restrictive. (In fairness, a lot of Mark’s favourite cultural artefacts are just as difficult to obtain in the UK today.) But that’s not to say Fisher isn’t often parochial. I have always thought that his parochialism was one of his strengths. He had an exceptional ability to make the personal truly political. With this in mind, I think what people recognise in Mark’s work, which they may interpret as an Anglocentrism, is instead a commitment to making personal experience collectively relatable. He explores British culture because it’s what he knows, but in focusing on his own backyard, he also encourages each of us to further explore our own differences and particular experiences. This is not so that we might further champion ourselves as unique individuals, but in order to build what is truly needed but is, in fact, discouraged by capitalism more broadly, which is a solidarity without similarity. This makes him a champion of Situationist principles, we might argue. His work has always been psychogeographic in this sense, careening between the local and the global.
This is the productive tension that I think is still active within Capitalist Realism, even a decade later. I have already expressed elsewhere that I hope the translation of his work into Spanish will allow us to newly affirm and strengthen the intellectual bridges between our theorists, artists and political activists. I hope the same will be true of his appearance in Slovenian. With this in mind, the more interesting question for me isn’t so much how Capitalist Realism can inspire a new generation of Slovenians, but how explicitly Slovenian perspectives can be newly incorporated into our understanding of capitalist realism as a global crisis.
From here, it was my intention to segue into a discussion of Fisher’s cultural interests (and disinterests). I think that Mark’s key strength as a writer is that he uses British culture — particularly its music; surely one of the country’s most important exports — as a bridge between these local and global contexts. Focusing on culture in the 1990s especially helps us understand how certain political changes came to be accepted so easily. The entire problem of British centrism cannot simply be laid at the feet of Tony Blair, for example; the deeper problem was one of a tangential pop-cultural complicity.
That Fisher was deeply critical of popular culture at this time and in the 2000s was not a sign that he thought pop poisons young people’s minds, as if he was some old man yelling at clouds – which is nonetheless how he is sometimes portrayed. On the contrary, Fisher despaired that popular culture had apparently lost its connection to the underground. What he called a “popular modernism” had been vanquished; the underground’s impact on the overground was negligible. This isn’t to say that radical culture and politics disappeared, but it certainly didn’t occupy the same place in our popular consciousness as it had done when figures like John Lennon, for example, were driving a popular anti-war movement through pop music. Fisher preferred figures from his youth like Ian Curtis, Mark Stewart, Paul Weller, of course, but he would turn to the counterculture later in life nonetheless. Nevertheless, his best essay on this question — and on post-punk’s connection to popular culture — is undoubtedly “Going Overground”, an earlier version of which was published on his k-punk blog, with a refined version appearing in Post-Punk Then and Now.
This disconnection between underground and overground was epitomised by a Nineties establishment’s continuing war on rave culture. There was little popular resistance to this. Dance music still entered the charts, of course, and David Bowie famously tried to make pop music that was in tune with the jungle and drum’n’bass scene at that time; international figures like Björk also famously drew on that scene as well, but all ultimately failed to channel that energy in a way that connected with a broader cultural moment. The underground failed to dominate and shape the overground as it once had done. Instead, the pop positioning that working class artists had once fought for was taken as a given and made utterly apolitical.
For many, both at home and abroad, that Nineties era was pop-culturally defined by the rivalry between two British bands: Blur and Oasis. In many respects, these two bands were perfectly named: Oasis – referring to a fertile spot in a desert – embraced the illusion of prosperity that the void of New Labour centrism championed (often despite itself), whilst Blur – referring to something that cannot be seen clearly – spoke to the disorientating lack of distinction between different political realities under capitalism at the end of the twentieth century. But this is not to suggest that one band stood for complicity and the other critique – both were as impotent as each other, with their rivalry being reduced to music magazine fodder with no material stakes whatsoever outside of their own bank accounts. If anything, the dynamic was backwards. Epitomising England’s internal north-south divide, Oasis, as a working-class northern band, were somehow far more reactionary than Blur, a middle-class London band. With both sides being cheered on my politicians looking for some cultural credibility, the whole charade demonstrated how the entire landscape of political disagreement and cultural potential had been flattened, gathered up into the new apolitical centre, and made impotent. Whilst there was resistance to the application of this framework, at least outside of popular culture, it seemed impossible to argue for alternatives from within.
The shadow of this Nineties moment was long. Though dance music cultures continued to develop, albeit with strikingly less impact than they had once had on the overground – too afflicted by grief following the death of rave, according to some – popular culture in the 2000s was just terrible. With the Blur/Oasis war over, Fisher instead rallied against the Arctic Monkeys, who continued this newly impotence tradition to great commercial success. A similar cultural situation was unfolding in the US too, particularly following 9/11, when most experimental music sought a return to innocence, feeling a distinct nostalgia for the nation’s 19th century naivety and 20th century adolescence. In the UK, however, Blairite postmodernism led to a kind of cultural dementia, where society wasn’t so much driven by a traumatised nostalgia but seemed to forget what year it was altogether. The impact this had on politics was clear and depressing.
It was this failure of the cultural imagination that gave birth to Fisher’s writing on the idea that “the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of capitalism” — a line he borrows from Fredric Jameson but then ultimately makes his own. The argument, succinctly put, is that our political imagination is now so misshapen by capitalist ideology that it is easier to imagine the end of life itself than it is to imagine other ways of living. Or, alternatively, the end of the world is the only way we can imagine doing things differently. Postcapitalism, then, is inherently postapocalyptic. Whether due to climate catastrophe or a zombie apocalypse, the end of capitalism is only imaginable alongside the destruction of state apparatuses and the advanced management systems that organise our daily lives today.
This places capitalist realism at the heart of what Jean-Francois Lyotard once called “the postmodern condition”, which again is an appeal to kind of stasis. Postmodernism, he argued, is the settling of modernism’s frenzy into a relatively stable configuration; “not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant.” This is to say that, under postmodernism, there are differences, there are alternatives, there are arguments for other worlds, but the problem is that these alternatives and arguments are themselves static. They are reified and fixed, like chess pieces with specific characteristics and moves, caught in an infinite stalemate. Things may violently vibrate, and some pieces might fall, but nothing ever really moves forwards. It is all captured within the marketplace of ideas. As Alain Badiou once argued, we are capable of destroying the old but incapable of generating the new. Caught in this state, the game doesn’t end. Postmodernism, then, is not a response to a contentious present, but the suspension of present contentions altogether.
For Lyotard, the implications of this are not simply cultural or political but broadly epistemological. In a postmodern world, any newly discovered form of knowledge or expression is immediately subordinated to a totalizing ideological “truth”. This is an unfortunate side-effect of society’s computerisation, he argues. Just as any new programme loaded onto a computer for the first time must nonetheless be rendered in a format that is legible to the operating system at large, so any new perspective on our world must be legible to a pre-existing hegemonic framework – even forms of knowledge that are principally opposed to that framework altogether. Postmodern critique was an attempt to break this framework. It was a kind of battle cry, signalling “a war on totality” that demands we bear witness, as previously mentioned, to “the unpresentable”.
This, too, is an argument that Fisher would update for the twenty-first century. Following Capitalist Realism, in books like Ghosts of my Life and The Weird and the Eerie, he repeatedly points to things which do not fit – either remnants of the twentieth century believed to be vanquished that nonetheless stagger on, or wholly new ideas or cultural artefacts that disturb, frighten or cause displeasure, simply because they do not fit into the rigid framework of capitalist stasis.
This argument finds its place in Capitalist Realism too. Fisher argues that whilst capitalism is everywhere, not everything is capitalist. As he later emphasised in Postcapitalist Desire, just because capitalism is fuelled by our desires does not mean that everything we desire is necessarily capitalist in nature. It is with great difficulty that we excavate these things from their capitalist encasement. But in attempting to do so regardless, we demand of ourselves a new conception of the world that is not impossibly non-capitalist but seductively post-capitalist. As Marx himself argued, we should not forsake wealth as such, but attempt to transform wealth beyond the bounds of capital’s value-structure. There is a wealth beyond capitalism. Once we learn to acknowledge that capitalism, in its present stasis, is not capable of providing us with the world we desire, then the future will truly return to us.
This was, in part, the importance of Fisher’s pop theoretical interventions. So many of those who dismiss him as unoriginal or basic miss the point that, before his book was published, these conversations seemed almost completely absent from popular culture. Fisher opened up a new door so that these older arguments could once again find contemporary relevance and also be given new forms in which to be expressed. However, Fisher’s own publication timeline does not help with this.
Whereas many assume that the thesis of Capitalist Realism is developed in Ghosts of my Life and The Weird and the Eerie, much of this material predates Capitalist Realism on Fisher’s k-punk blog, where his hauntological thought can be explicitly dated to 2004-2006. Though he remained interested in the spectres of the twentieth century that continue to linger over the twenty-first, Capitalist Realism was written at a time when Fisher was coming round to Alex Williams’ accelerationist critique of hauntology, which insists we do not start from our mourning of the past but with our present fury.
More contentiously, accelerationism argues that we do not start from our memory of past politics but for the truth of contemporary capitalism. Though often mistaken for capitalist complicity, this was similarly Jameson’s utopian argument, in which he argues that our desire does not conform to a capitalist pattern but extends capitalism into something beyond itself. It is in this sense that he argues in Postmodernism that
new political art (if it is indeed possible at all) will have to hold to the truth of postmodernism, that is to say, to its fundamental object — the world space of multinational capital — at the same time at which it achieves a breakthrough to some as yet unimaginable new mode of representing this last, in which we may again begin to grasp our positioning as individual and collective subjects and regain a capacity to act and struggle which is at present neutralized by our spatial as well as our social confusion.
Fisher intended for his own work to function as political art in this way. Though he may be more readily understood as a cultural critic rather than an artist in his own right, his mixes, radio shows and audio-essays reveal a man who was deeply committed to the idea that music and film (as well as their discussion) could give form to new worlds. Under the influence of Stuart Hall and Sadie Plant, he believed that cultural studies could itself be a form of cultural production. This point had never been more important than in the 2000s, when that once symbiotic relationship between postmodern culture and politics was awaiting a new Gramscian figure to challenge a waning hegemony. (For more on this, see my introduction to K-Punk, Vol. 3 and, to a lesser extent, yesterday’s post on the 2021 Met Gala.)
Flirting with the idea of seizing the mantle for himself — I’m told that Mark always wanted to be a pop star — he drew on the work of Jameson, Badiou, and Žižek in particular, but also on lessons learned from his time as a member of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit. As a PhD student at the University of Warwick in the late Nineties and early 2000s, Fisher had contributed to a wealth of feverish texts that seemed to be written in collaboration with some sort of artificial intelligence. Constructing their own demonic mythology of forces, giving occulted new names to Spinozist entities of transcendental causality in the twenty-first century, the Ccru depicted a world in which the centrist dissolution of all difference was itself an apocalyptic moment. The birth of the internet was also the rebirth of history, and it was from this newly global platform that vibrant new mutant subjectivities might one day emerge.
Though he moved on from this stylised writing when penning Capitalist Realism, the output of the Ccru was still relevant to Fisher’s claim that “the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of capitalism”. This phrase was taken from an article that Fredric Jameson wrote for the New Left Review in 2004 called “Future City”. The essay is primarily about the writing of Dutch architect Rem Koolhas. Jameson is struck by Koolhas’s use of a cyberpunk writing style, which he employs to describe postmodern architecture in a postmodern textual fever dream entitled “Junkspace”. [I am indebted to Nic Clear, who presented on Jameson and Koolhas in his exploration of Fisher’s first book at the conference “Capitalist Realism: 10 Years On”, held at the University of Huddersfield in February 2020.]
The essay could easily be a lost document unearthed from the Ccru’s archive. Whereas the Warwick cyberpunks wrote of the tyrannies of “meatspace”, Koolhas argues that the proliferation of “junkspace” in the contemporary urban environment similarly announces the victory of a “fuzzy empire of blur, [which] fuses high and low, public and private, straight and bent, bloated and starved to offer a seamless patchwork of the permanently disjointed.” For Jameson, though it seems to celebrate the most dystopic aspects of the cultural present, this kind of distasteful affirmationism might be the only form of cultural protest left. After all, it is the affirmation of an ending — indeed, the end of History as such. But to announce such an ending is, in itself, an act of historicization. In affirming these promiscuous contemporary stylings, borrowing from the entirely of history, as nonetheless being of a type and of a time, we compartmentalise them, giving them an inside and an outside, a beginning and an ending. We give them a sense of movement. It is, as Badiou once said, to promote “historicity without history”. (For more on Badiou’s reading of history, this article by Matthew McManus is worthwhile.) Indeed, if we are to speak of history at all, it is the end of History with a Capital H. Down with History, long live the new age of historicity — of events over narratives, of adaptive strategy over timeless ideology.
Discussing our sense that the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of capitalism, Jameson affirms the end of world history in sense, as defined by capitalist forces. He writes:
I think it would be better to characterize all this in terms of History, a History that we cannot imagine except as ending, and whose future seems to be nothing but a monotonous repetition of what is already here. The problem is then how to locate radical difference; how to jumpstart the sense of history so that it begins again to transmit feeble signals of time, of otherness, of change, of Utopia. The problem to be solved is that of breaking out of the windless present of the postmodern back into real historical time, and a history made by human beings. I think this writing [– that is, the cyberpunk stylings of Koolhas and, by extension, the Ccru –] is a way of doing that or at least of trying to. Its science-fictionality derives from the secret method of this genre: which in the absence of a future focuses on a single baleful tendency, one that it expands and expands until the tendency itself becomes apocalyptic and explodes the world in which we are trapped into innumerable shards and atoms. The dystopian appearance is thus only the sharp edge inserted into the seamless Moebius strip of late capitalism, the punctum or perceptual obsession that sees one thread, any thread, through to its predictable end.
The key sentiment that I take from Jameson’s text here, is this “single baleful tendency [that] expands and expands”. This is key to a lot of Jameson’s work. His utopianism is never a sort of breaking through to a transcendental outside, but rather points of intensity expanding like a shockwave and enveloping all that is around them. This is important to note because, too often, a desire for the new gets stuck down the cul-de-sac of an absolute new. Some people think that, if the idea that is going to save the world isn’t completely never-heard-before brand-spanking new, it’s not going to work. But really, we should think more closely about those moments when an idea gets a little bit bigger or more intense or a tendency accelerates or gets louder, moving into a new area of possibility.
If this was Fisher’s implicit argument in 2009, on the topic of a postcapitalist thought that he would continue to develop for the rest of his life, it is no less relevant to 2021, especially in the UK.
Days before I flew out to Ljubljana, there was a predictable outcry from the nation’s TERFs after Judith Butler was interviewed in the US edition of the Guardian newspaper. At the time of writing, three paragraphs from the interview have been removed in which Butler rightly points out that anti-trans activists frequently align themselves with the far right, despite paying lip service to feminism’s apparently innately left-wing ideals. But the problem, perhaps, is that many contemporary feminists have ultimately failed to remain contemporaneous, to remain modern, to expand their social injunctions in line with the expanding field of the social around them.
Butler highlights this explicitly in her opening remarks. The interviewer, Jules Gleeson, says: “It’s been 31 years since the release of Gender Trouble. What were you aiming to achieve with the book?” Butler responds:
It was meant to be a critique of heterosexual assumptions within feminism, but it turned out to be more about gender categories. For instance, what it means to be a woman does not remain the same from decade to decade. The category of woman can and does change, and we need it to be that way. Politically, securing greater freedoms for women requires that we rethink the category of “women” to include those new possibilities. The historical meaning of gender can change as its norms are re-enacted, refused or recreated.
So we should not be surprised or opposed when the category of women expands to include trans women. And since we are also in the business of imagining alternate futures of masculinity, we should be prepared and even joyous to see what trans men are doing with the category of “men”.
What Butler is challenging here, if you ask me, is a stubborn form of gender realism. And her definition of resistance to this realism is really useful. The same can apply to capitalist realism, wherein categories of class, labour and value similarly change decade to decade. Indeed, it is imperative to capitalism realism to essentialise and maintain a false stability of conceptions of the world and of the self. It is with this in mind that I think the key point of Butler’s, which bears repeating, is that, “Politically, securing greater freedoms … requires that we rethink [all political categories] to include those new possibilities.” But as we can also see, new essentialisms and reductive categories emerge or are emboldened to smother those new potentials in turn. What I especially like about Butler’s conception of TERF resistance is that her idea of the future isn’t simply speculative — albeit not in the popular sense of that word that we’ve come know. Speculation often sounds too much like guess work, like uncertain predictions without grounding, but in speaking to expansive categories that are able to incorporate new possibilities, she appeals to the speculative as a process, like that found in the philosophy of Alfred Whitehead.
Whitehead has this great lecture, in his book Process & Reality, where he distinguishes between facts and forms. We think of facts as things that are true and which simply don’t change, but the forms we use to present facts actually change all the time, and must. That’s what Fisher was especially good at — providing new forms for the facts that capitalist realism struggles to present. When people see Capitalist Realism as a basic book or an unoriginal book, especially ten years on from its initial release — something common among jaded young people who’ve read a little Marx or some Adorno — they take for granted Fisher’s ability to present familiar arguments in wholly new terms that could only take such forms in his present. But we’re not living in Fisher’s present any longer. It is still with a great sadness that I remember he’s no longer with us. But we continue to appeal to our present without him.
On the plane over to Ljubljana, I was reading Arthur Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. (I’ve been quite interested in his life and work recently.) One of his closing ripostes to the reader is affirmed by Fisher better than anyone:
One must be absolutely modern.
The scene in Ljubljana is enthralling and deeply exciting to me, if only because it understands this sentiment well. In fact, I’d argue it manages to be absolutely modern in a way that London (and the UK more generally) often struggles with.
Though it is nonetheless immersed in its own history, as all capital cities surely are, I’ve never felt more in tune with the rhythms of the present (at least since this pandemic started) than when driving back from and to Ljubljana’s Brnik airport, awestruck by the Julian Alps, nodding along to the Slovenian trap being played on Radio Študent.
Since leaving London this time last year, I’ve tried repeatedly (but not always successfully) to embrace my new natural surroundings in West Yorkshire and spend as much time in them as possible. Every time I’m out for a walk, I think about W.H. Auden’s anti-industrial (if also anti-accelerationist) volley from “Bucolics II”:
This great society is going smash;
They cannot fool us with how fast they go.
How much they cost each other and the gods.
A culture is no better than its woods.
In West Yorkshire, the impact of the industrial revolution is still readily apparent. In the Calder valley especially, still peppered with the ruins of old mills and chimneys, there are woods of stunted trees. The heavy smog of the industrial era created twisted branches and witches’ covens, as if nature is no longer reaching up but reaching out, horizontally, skulking underneath polluted clouds, looking to throttle whoever is suffocating the land. If a culture is no better than its woods, then England’s is clearly stunted too. There are signs of recovery, in music especially, but on the whole our cultural industries struggle to thrive under the mire of capitalist realism.
Maybe I’m a little cynical. I’m not well-travelled. Holidays for me as a kid meant driving back and forth to our closest continental neighbour, France, every year. Suffice it to say, I am easily impressed, but I have never seen trees or mountains as tall as those in Slovenia last week. Slovenia may be a tiny country, only slightly bigger than Yorkshire, but it felt so much more expansive in its goals and ideals than our repressed little island.
I think Aleš was surprised by just how impressed I was as he showed me around the Metelkova area surrounding Maska’s offices. Alja mentioned how, after the Slovene Spring, the new nations’ cultural industries were a real frontier, occupying old socialist military infrastructure and refusing to give it back, providing the capital’s rich intellectual and artistic scene an array of spaces in which to produce culture and critique. Some cultural NGOs still occupy these buildings relatively rent-free, including Maska itself. Compared to the near-impossibility of acquiring and retaining cultural space here in the UK, it seemed like a paradise, but it is a paradise still under threat.
Maska’s newest journal issue, kindly gifted to me on arrival, is entitled “Eviction of Culture”. Pia Brezavšček and Rok Bozovičar explain the organisation’s current crisis in their editorial introduction:
After nearly 24 years of being based at Metelkova 6, Maska Institute received a letter from the Ministry of Culture asking it to provide signed consent to move out. The same letter was sent to seventeen other civil-society and cultural non-governmental organisations working in the spaces of former military barracks, which separates the Autonomous Zone Metelkova from the museum square and facilities belonging to the administration of the Ministry of Culture. Some of these organisations have been using the building since 1994, when it became the property of the Ministry of Culture as a space intended for housing independent and alternative cultural and civil-society initiatives. As a whole, they constitute the largest independent production house in Slovenia, which is why the real reason for ordering this eviction is not that the building is dilapidated, even though it quite evidently is. Instead, the obstinate attempt to throw out M6 is primarily a symbol of the ruling political option’s attitude towards spaces of critical thought and art, a segment of hard-earned places of freedom which are being erased for no other reason than resentment.
Capitalist realism is alive and well in crises like these. Though we think of it as a situation, or an era, it remains an active process whereby ways of being, living, and doing are perpetually restricted to bureaucratic forms. But when you give an inch to bureaucracy, bureaucracy takes a mile. I mentioned repeatedly to Aleš that spaces like Metelkova simply don’t exist in the UK anymore. Though their offices reminded me distinctly of Cardiff’s Chapter Arts centre, which occupied an old school building in the Welsh capital — school / barracks, same difference — such spaces are utterly commercialised today by necessity. Either culture is evicted, or it invites capitalist realism in. For many in government, there remains no alternative.
But still, the scene in Ljubljana is vibrant and expansive, in some ways that put a city like London (never mind elsewhere in the UK) to shame. it is inspiring to see them still fight for principles that many UK arts organisations lost long ago. That there are new collectives emerging who cannot be met on old battle lines is also intriguing. I look forward to returning to Ljubljana in the future and understanding better how their cultural spheres operate and work together. There is much to be learned from them.