Capitalist Realism and the Eviction of Culture:
Notes from Ljubljana

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.

Introduction to K-Punk, Vol. 3:
English Language Version

Prior to the release of K-Punk, Vol. 3 — the third and final volume of Caja Negra‘s Spanish translation of k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016) — I was invited to write an introduction that further contextualized Fisher’s “reflections” for a Spanish-speaking audience.

Alongside a collection of interviews, these reflections include some of Fisher’s most misunderstood and most venerated essays, such as “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, “Good For Nothing”, and the unfinished introduction to “Acid Communism” (all found in parts four, five and six of the big English edition, which Vol. 3 brings together in a separate volume).

Considering how these essays might be read outside of the Anglosphere has been a very interesting exercise. But to read this introduction back in its original language may be slightly jarring for English readers, as it assumes ignorance of ten-year-old trivialities within (particularly) English and (to a lesser extent) American popular culture. Footnotes also add copious details that would surely be overkill in an Anglospheric context. However, in my experience, the Anglosphere’s view of the 2010s and Fisher’s role as a critical voice within them remains muddy and unclear at best (with the strangest readings, in my experience, coming from American readers who mistakenly conflate his often parochially English experiences with their own.) As a result, we have accumulated a popular understanding riddled with inaccuracies, which have continued to linger over more contemporary engagement with Fisher’s work, including my own. I hope this return to the very heart of the matter will provide English speakers around the world with some much-needed context as well.

The strange thing is that Spanish readers, particularly in Latin America, may be far more familiar with the sentiment that carries through Fisher’s work, explored below, than your average English speaker. Indeed, recent electoral results in Peru suggest some countries in the region may have less to learn from Fisher than his own countrymen. At the same time, perhaps his growing popularity among Spanish speakers is because they recognize his concerns as their own. Either way, I hope the following essay provides further context for those lucky enough to be unfamiliar with the concerns of your average British centrist or American “neo-anarchist”. I also hope it illuminates the Anglosphere’s own blind spots, so that an international dialogue can increasingly flow both ways, with comrades in other regions contributing further to our debates and showing the West what it continues to misunderstand in the fight against neoliberalism.

You can find the Spanish version of the essay, translated by Patricio Orellana, on the Caja Negra blog here. The essay is also included inside K-Punk, Vol. 3, available now from their website and elsewhere. Many thanks to Ezequiel Fanego for the commission.

There will be more to come from Caja Negra in the near future, with a Spanish translation of my book Egress expected early next year as well. Watch this space.

Introduction to K-Punk, Vol. 3

Exit, Pursed by a Bird

In 2013, Mark Fisher left Twitter. One would hardly expect this move to provoke much controversy, but Fisher made quite a scene when he did so. The essay written to accompany his departure was provocatively titled “Exiting the Vampire Castle”. It was bold and the backlash to it was considerable.

Central to Fisher’s essay was a renewed sense of class consciousness, which was, at that time, struggling to emerge. Long since curtailed in Britain since the 1990s, when the Labour Party first declared that “we are all middle-class now”, the issue had gradually returned to the fore – thanks, in part, to Owen Jones’ 2011 book Chavs and the confounding patchwork persona of comedian Russell Brand.[1]

Though moving in separate circles of public discourse, Jones and Brand both hoped to engender a new popular radicalism by making demands for real change heard within mainstream culture and politics. This, in turn, illustrated how detrimental a decade of centrist discourse had been on many already maligned members of society. Jones, on the one hand, spoke out against grotesque working-class stereotypes at the forefront of the political imagination[2]; Brand, on the other, lampooned how anaemic that political imagination was more generally, insisting on new ideas that might better remedy cruelly criminalised social problems like drug addiction.[3]

Both were successful, dominating conversations across the political spectrum in 2013. And yet, they also irritated many people as well. Jones was too loud, too visible, too idealist; Brand too extravagant, too camp, and too prone to the use of sexist epithets. Though the right’s distaste for their politics was to be expected, it was the left’s cynicism that disappointed Fisher the most. The two men were soon caught up in an internal battle taking place on the left – a battle between the centrist establishment, which had lorded over the Labour Party for two decades, and post-Occupy “neo-anarchists”, who had witnessed the emergence of a newly emboldened undercommons around the financial crash of 2008, but who also rejected the corrupting potential of any political or cultural influence whatsoever.

It is worth shining further light on this context. Though it reached a tipping point in 2013, Fisher had consistently attempted to intervene in this postmodern stalemate. His first book, Capitalist Realism, had been an implicit attack on Tony Blair’s Labour Party, which he denounced for producing a politically apathetic generation defined by its “reflexive impotence”. Describing the apathy of his own students, Fisher writes: “They know things are bad, but more than that, they know they can’t do anything about it. But that ‘knowledge’, that reflexivity, is not a passive observation of an already existing state of affairs. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”[4] By 2013, the impact of this impotence was clear. It was not only endemic among the young but the majority of commentators who represented the left online as well.

Socialist Sell-Outs

Following Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to public prominence as leader of the Labour Party in 2015, there is now vocal grassroots opposition to the UK’s centrist orthodoxy. Just two years earlier, however, many openly mocked the idea of a left-wing party ever functioning as a parliamentary opposition, never mind forming a government. With few politicians to direct their ire at, most ridiculed commentators like Owen Jones instead. “I was 14 when I got my head round how fantastically far removed my tribal anger and knee-jerk leftism were from ordinary British voters”, wrote Labour Party affiliate Luke Akehurst in a 2013 article dedicated to trashing Jones. “Although out of his teens”, Akehurst suggests “it’s not too late for Owen to come to his senses.”[5]

What irritated Fisher more than the likes of Akehurst was the absence of any mainstream opposition to this derision from those much further left of centre. Echoing the handwringing of 1990s rock’n’roll fans, who mistakenly saw any contact between counter-cultural politics and pop-cultural success as “selling out”, the public prominence of Jones and Brand was seen as somehow antithetical to their political aims. Natasha Lennard, for instance, in an influential essay for Salon, argued that, whilst Brand’s politics were very agreeable, he was nonetheless complicit in a broader capitalist machine. We should be sceptical, she writes, of those moments “when radical or militant ideas or images enter the popular imaginary under capitalism.”[6]

It is ironic, of course, for a professional writer to criticise someone making political points for money. Lennard was aware of this. “Brand is navigating the well-worn conflict facing those with a public platform in the current epoch (myself among them)”, she writes. But this “well-worn conflict” was entirely of the left’s own making. Paralyzed by its own contradictions, many commentators insisted that the only choices available were doing nothing or actively engaging in self-harm. Lennard recommends the latter. “We have to be willing to obliterate our own elevated platforms, our own spaces of celebrity”, she insists.[7]

Antonio Gramsci was no doubt spinning in his grave. Capitalism’s cultural hegemony had no effective opposition whatsoever. Rather than constituting a new militancy, this attitude was nothing more than a mutation of the “reflexive impotence” Fisher had witnessed in the classroom in 2009.

This is not to suggest that Lennard’s warnings should go unheeded, of course. Capitalism is certainly capable of appropriating radical politics for its own aims, and certain radical political strategies can also function as a welcome mat for capitalism’s own emergent tendencies. We can never fully predict how our own politics will be used against us, but we will be waiting for an eternity if we insist on cultural abstinence until a political imagination emerges that is not produced “under capitalism”.

It was this abstinence, more than anything, that Fisher hoped to argue against. “Purism shades into fatalism”, he writes. The left’s denial of their own cultural influence was just another self-fulfilling prophecy. Brand may not have been the spokesperson many wanted, but there were few other options to choose from, precisely because the left had sworn itself off cultural representation altogether. As Fisher writes, the left mistakenly believed that it was “better not to be in any way tainted by the corruption of the mainstream, better to uselessly ‘resist’ than to risk getting your hands dirty.”[8] On the contrary, there is no outside to capitalist hegemony. The only way out is through.

Popular Modernism

If the only way out is through, who should lead the way? Contra Lennard, no one was calling on Brand to start a new vanguard party of celebrity revolutionaries to drag us out of our impotency – least of all Brand himself. The entire premise of “Messiah Complex”, the stand-up show Brand was touring at that time, was that things must be bad if it is up to someone like him to raise awareness of progressive issues. But Brand also recognised that his platform allowed him to contribute something genuinely valuable and currently missing from mainstream culture. He was able to raise his audience’s political consciousness and insist, with great passion, that another world is possible.

This was the power of “popular modernism” – Fisher’s term for the productive intersection between popular culture and the avant-garde that had defined his post-punk youth.[9] In the twenty-first century, these two modes of cultural production had been cleaved apart. Not only that, culture and politics were denied any meaningful relationship whatsoever. This, too, is evidenced by Lennard’s article. Commenting on the inherent anti-feminism of Brand’s prominence, she suggests – with tongue in cheek – that if leftists in the US are so excited about British comedians talking politics, they might as well “reinstate a monarchy with Brand as sovereign, Kanye [West] as chief advisor”.[10]

Lennard’s use of Kanye West as a punchline further illustrates the problem at hand. Ever the divisive figure, in 2013 West released his most politically charged album to date, Yeezus, which featured tracks like “New Slaves” and “Blood on the Leaves” that furiously engaged with the paradoxical relationship between black liberation and black aspiration under capitalism. Though much of this work was arguably undone by his uncritical support for Donald Trump, from his declaration that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” in 2005 to his spectacular homage to UK grime at the 2015 Brit Awards, West arguably did more to raise black political consciousness in mainstream culture than any other artist that decade.[11]

Kanye’s mutation into an unstable pariah in more recent years is arguably symptomatic of the frame his work was forcibly encased within. His attempts to run for the US presidency, whilst equally laughable and horrifying to many, are clearly the result of our false equivalence between politicised voices and politicians. The truth, of course, is that the two are not mutually exclusive – not everyone who cares about politics needs to make it their career. Nevertheless, thanks to neoliberalism’s compartmentalisation of political voices and their affects, cultural and political representatives were paradoxically held apart from those spaces were culture and politics take place.

Fisher sought to undo this separation in all of his writings, emphasising the extent to which our cultural malaise feeds into our political apathy. He argued repeatedly that the role of culture in politics is to help people engage more effectively in what Raymond Williams called our “structures of feeling”. Williams argued that contemporary culture often provides an outlet for political feelings that are inchoate and unarticulated. These feelings may speak to experiences that are contrary to received articulations of political affect (e.g. capitalist realism) and, as such, are able to generate new ways of thinking in the present. The cynicism applied to Brand and Jones, as well as the likes of Kanye West, from both the left and the right, undermined this role, which Fisher noticed had atrophied since his youth.[12]

A year after “Exiting the Vampire Castle” was published, with attitudes like Lennard’s firmly in his sights, Fisher returned to this point explicitly. Discussing the “sound affects” of Paul Weller and The Jam, he writes:

One of the problems with many of the horizontalist models of political action is that they assume that we already know what we think and feel, and we are simply prevented from expressing ourselves by oppressive power structures. Yet mass mediated art [in the Seventies and Eighties] could name and focus feelings that were not only suppressed – by ‘internal’ as well as external censoring agencies – but which were inchoate, unformed, virtual. Mass mediation transformed, not merely ‘represented’ these affects; after they were named and brought into focus, the feelings ‘themselves’ were experienced differently.[13]

The Vampire Castle, then, does not resist power but feeling. It does more to smother the emergence of new movements than it does to create them. Though it might feel good to denounce the mainstream and its prominent voices, all the left had developed as an unsightly addiction to its own auto-erotic asphyxiation.

Fangs For Nothing

Though it gained a certain “cult” status online, the general response to Fisher’s essay was poor. The feelings he sought to articulate did not crystallise in that moment. Instead, the point he hoped to make was overshadowed by both his polemic (and, therefore, apparently hypocritical) tone, and the fact that he had backed the wrong horse. (For many, his defence of Brand, in particular, was bizarre.) For the few who heard them, however, his questions were deeply resonant with the present moment. Fisher implicitly asked, why do we desire individual perfection over collective potential? Why do we expend more energy attacking individuals than building solidarity around them – not so that they might become new “masters” or “gods”, as Lennard feared, but as examples of emerging spokespeople for the sort of new and radical future that had been denied us for decades?

Fisher had long been opposed to such self-defeating cynicism, especially within academia. On his k-punk blog, he once wrote scathingly of academia’s “Grey Vampires”, for instance – people who “don’t feed on energy directly, they feed on obstructing projects”.[14] By 2013, he had seemingly had enough of their growing presence online as well. Whereas party political meetings and activist events remained, in his experience, exuberant and joyful occasions, social media instead amplified our worst communicative impulses. It was a space that algorithmically encouraged quick-fire outrage and cynicism, dismantling a sense of comradery and solidarity that was already in short supply.

These were not the complaints of a man who misunderstood the unwritten rules of communicative technologies in a new era. In fact, Fisher’s observations were prescient. We now take for granted the fact that social media platforms – particularly Facebook – are algorithmically predisposed to exacerbate and encourage political polarisation. Fisher, and others within the blogosphere, saw that world coming.[15] They understood that pessimistic clickbait was far more complicit in capitalism’s networks of disenfranchisement than the rabble-rousing affirmations of Brand and Jones.

This, in itself, constituted a change of heart for Fisher. He had previously championed the potentials of cyberspace and blog theory as the digital continuation of a counter-cultural DIY sensibility. Since his time in the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (Ccru)[16] – of which he was a part whilst studying at the University of Warwick in the late 1990s – the internet had always been a liminal space for the proliferation of popular modernisms, distinctly other to that original Vampire Castle: the academic philosophy department.

Stalking the corridors and lecture halls of the neoliberal university, hiding their true intentions beneath a thin veil of academic conviviality, Grey Vampires “are profoundly suspicious of commitments and projects”, Fisher writes. They engage with others in a manner that will no doubt be familiar to anyone who has ever set foot in a graduate seminar: “all they want is a few clarifications, as if they are just on the brink of being persuaded, when in fact the real aim is to lure you into the swamp of skeptical inertia and mild depression in which they languish.”[17]

Whereas the Internet had once been a refuge from this sort of depressive anti-production, it had since become infected with this vampirism as well. On Twitter especially, the Grey Vampire was increasingly common, and naturally suited to such an environment, already well-populated by its close relative, the “troll”.

In laying out this online taxonomy, Fisher was not taking the moral high ground. He was describing a set of tendencies that we are all prone to. Vampirism, after all, is infectious. If you’re bitten enough times, you discover the strange pleasure in biting back. As Fisher continues: “Part of the reason I can’t hack it as an academic is that, in a university environment, I invariably find myself pincered between the troll and Grey Vampire positions.”[18] That Fisher had come to feel the same way about social media was, for him, a great shame. What was once an outcrop of experimentation and new cultural potentials had been, like every other outlet available to us, co-opted and assimilated into a new system of control. This was confirmed by the average Twitter vampire’s mirroring of various capitalist dynamics.

“Capital… Vampire-Like…”

In his symptomatology of the social media condition, Fisher lists those tendencies most exemplary of online vampires, including drives to “individualise and privatise everything”; “make thought and action appear very, very difficult”; “propagate as much guilt as you can”; “essentialise”.[19] Although many saw his descriptions of the Vampire Castle as doing exactly what he was trying to criticise, these dynamics were not individual for Fisher. They were instead a reflection of dominant tendencies at work in the system at large. After all, this isn’t just how people act online, it is, as Karl Marx famously argued, how capitalism operates everywhere.[20]

This point has been lost on many readers in recent years, who have seized upon Fisher’s essay as an early shot fired during the antebellum of the so-called “Culture Wars”. As such, Fisher has been mistaken for an early critic of “identity politics” and “cancel culture”. But Fisher was not concerned about the mass criticism of certain obnoxious and reactionary voices online, whose views are over-amplified in a world that is trying to move on from certain stagnant and outmoded twentieth-century values. He was instead concerned about the left’s interest in disparaging those within its own ranks over building any kind of common project. The point bears repeating: this was not because Fisher despaired from a superior position. He knew how infectious these habits could be.

In 2014, Fisher published “Good For Nothing”, an essay that attacks these capitalist tendencies from another angle. One of his most personal essays on depression, Fisher turns from Twitter miserabilism to the default disparagement internal (and integral) to capitalist subjectivity. “Depression is partly constituted by a sneering ‘inner’ voice”, he writes. “Of course, this voice isn’t an ‘inner’ voice at all – it is the internalised expression of actual social forces, some of which have a vested interest in denying any connection between depression and politics.”[21] Swapping “depression” for “leftist negativity”, this is the same point made in “Exiting the Vampire Castle”. Both essays are analyses of how capitalism’s co-option of social technologies encourages certain desires whilst blocking others. What Fisher called “neo-anarchy” was not a response to capitalism, in this sense, but a symptom of its consciousness-deflation. Cybernetic decentralisation, once a utopian alternative to state control, was now used more effectively by state-capitalism itself to undermine solidarity around the world. Twitter’s default cynical mode, therefore, was not just an issue of social etiquette but of political agency.

In this context, Fisher’s polemics can be seen as an attempt to diagnose a new strain of leftist melancholy, which was manifest as impotent negativity online. This melancholy was by no means a new problem for the left. Wendy Brown – a great influence on Fisher – notes that Walter Benjamin was the first to diagnose this condition that so badly afflicted “the revolutionary hack” who internalises the failures of the past and transforms them into a political pathology. Benjamin’s diagnosis, she writes, represents “a refusal to come to terms with the particular character of the present”. But more than this, it also betrays “a certain narcissism”, as demonstrated in two distinct ways by both Akehurst and Lennard, “with regard to one’s past political attachments and identity that exceeds any contemporary investment in political mobilization, alliance, or transformation.”[22] Just as the capitalist establishment insists that communism does not work – it has been tried and must never be tried again – the melancholic leftist resists praxis and structural analysis of any kind. What Fisher called “capitalist realism” – the belief that there is no viable alternative to capitalist hegemony – leads to the erosion of not just class consciousness but any historical-materialist understanding of the social media age whatsoever.

Such an analysis nonetheless remains essential. “Technology reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life,” Marx argued, “and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from those relations.”[23] If we are to retain such an understanding of our relationship to technology in the present, our politics must include a critique of social media and the ways it both exacerbates individualism and undermines collective action. But this does not mean abstaining from those networks. We must intervene in them with cunning and vigilance, even fury, as Fisher did repeatedly.

Collective Reflections

The essays collected in the present volume – and, indeed, its two predecessors – trace the development of Fisher’s thought in this regard. Viewed in isolation, however, this collection may suggest that Fisher took a break from writing after the publication of “Exiting the Vampire Castle” and “Good For Nothing”. On the contrary, this was far from the end of Fisher’s engagement with popular leftism. He recognised that his fierce critique had backfired. It was rejected by those it concerned, and used as another stick for the right to beat the left with. Because of this, the essay continues to split opinion to this day. But Fisher was smart enough to move on from it. Essays such as “No Romance Without Finance”, “Abandon Hope (Summer is Coming)” and “Democracy is Joy”[24] – all written in 2015 – further clarify the affirmative nature of Fisher’s later thought, during which time he swapped Twitter arguments for grassroots organising. Elsewhere, he continued to interrogate the negative influence of social media on our lives[25] as well as the potentials still waiting to be actualised in cyberspace.[26] These are the essays that continue the far more positive project Fisher described in “Good For Nothing”, which concludes with a series of potential focus points for contemporary politics. “Inventing new forms of political involvement, reviving institutions that have become decadent, converting privatised disaffection into politicised anger” – these are just some of the areas the left can focus on anew, “and when it does, who knows what is possible?”[27]

Fisher sought to answer this question in his next book, Acid Communism, the unfinished introduction to which is also included here. In this essay, we see the argument of “Exiting the Vampire Castle” inverted, with Fisher focusing more on the left’s collective desires over its individualising critiques. However, with Fisher better known for his polemics, few saw the connection between the two when it was first published in English in 2018. Many were also surprised by his newly sympathetic view of hippie culture, which he had also previously denounced for its reflexive impotence.[28]

Contextualised alongside a decade’s worth of prior reflections, Fisher’s argument for an acid communism is nonetheless familiar. “Instead of seeking to overcome capital,” he suggests that we “focus on what capital must always obstruct: the collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy.”[29] Though this suggestion may resonate with “Exiting the Vampire Castle” and “Good For Nothing” most explicitly, such an argument was not new for Fisher. In fact, encouraging this collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy was the very purpose of his k-punk blog.

In the 2004 blogpost, “Spinoza, K-Punk, Neuropunk”, for example, which is also included in this collection, Fisher warns that there is no guarantee new technologies will free us from capitalist enslavement. If there is any radicality innate to our machines, it is their potential to distance us from our all-too-human habits. The greatness of the blogosphere, for instance, lay in its capacity to sustain “a depersonalising, desubjectifying network” that was able to produce “joyful encounters … in which mammal-reptilian conflict defaults are disabled.”[30] Written years before the ascendency of social media, Fisher’s optimism might seem misplaced today, when such platforms are used predominantly to exacerbate the ugliest of human habits. But Fisher was aware that an active reasoning was necessary if we were to use our machines correctly, interrupting the human organism already “set up to produce misery”. With this in mind, the present collection includes a number of Fisher’s interventions online in the late 2000s, from the founding of the Dissensus forum to the closing of the k-punk comments section. Though strange documents, at least when removed from their original context, they demonstrate how Fisher’s acid communism was not a new politics for him but a new articulation of a lifetime’s worth of cultural intervention and criticism.

Despite popular speculation, no more material from Fisher’s next book exists. We do not have the full picture of his thought at this time – and perhaps never will – but there remains an Acid Communism to be constructed. It is his Sagrada Família, combining counter-intuitive perspectives and traditions to produce a new vision that was sadly left incomplete in his own lifetime. K-Punk Vol. 3 nonetheless provides us with its essential foundation, encouraging us to continue building this project, and there remains much work to do.

As we embark on such a task, we should bear in mind Raymond Williams’ concept of the “structure of feeling”. Our feelings are complex, ever shifting, sometimes contradictory, and increasingly polarised. But the strength of feeling on display in the present suggests a forceful politics to come. Acid Communism was to be a psychedelic programme that hoped to manifest such feelings through a materialist politics, all whilst undermining leftist melancholy, thwarting vampires, and building movements. This was a task Fisher embarked on with the help of Baruch de Spinoza, whom he had first read at the University of Warwick in the late 1990s. Writing of capitalism’s impact on human subjectivity in 2004, he writes: “When an entity starts to act against its own best interests, to destroy itself – as, sadly, Spinoza observes, humans are wont to do – it has been taken over by external forces. To be free and happy entails exorcising these invaders and acting in accordance with reason.”[31] These invaders are not always explicitly capitalist in nature; melancholy, in particular, is an affect capitalism produces and sets apart from itself. To address this disparity required a new orientation towards the future, as well as a better appreciation of the past. As such, Fisher called for manifesting not just our future feelings but the very ghosts of our lives.

Acid Exorcisms

In a recent interview with Jacobin magazine, the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis commented on his friendship with Fisher. They “used to meet regularly in a café by Liverpool Street station [in London] and have long conversations”, he says, about the ghosts of twentieth-century politics and culture that continually haunt us in the present. This “hauntological” mode is synonymous today with Fisher’s most melancholic writings regarding the slow cancellation of the future. But, as Curtis notes, what fascinated them both was “this idea that you could force the ghosts out of people’s heads to produce a new kind of society”.[32] Hauntology was, in this sense, a kind of inverted psychedelia; there has long been a dichotomy between remembering and hallucinating. Much like his disaffection with academia and social media, Fisher too often found himself pincered between his hauntological and psychedelic modes. The point, however, was to synthesise the two, breaking the inverse dialectic of modernity, and not letting either side win out. Such was Fisher’s task – difficult and easier said than done. But, as Fisher himself declared, once we understand these impulses, and their active potentials over their passive affects, “who knows what is possible?”

[1] For an insight into class consciousness in Britain at this time, see: Owen Jones, “We’re not all middle-class now: Owen Jones on class in Cameron’s Britain”, New Statesman, 19 May 2014: <>

[2] See: Owen Jones, Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class. London: Verso Books, 2011. Jones’ book attacked the pop-cultural ubiquity of the word “chav”, denoting a stereotypical working-class person who lives on social welfare and loves Burberry baseball caps and petty theft. In schools up and down the country, to call someone a “chav” was arguably the most popular insult in the average teenager’s vocabulary, second only to being “gay”. In the 2000s, casual homophobia and classism were equally rife. Jones’ book single-handedly triggered a moment of reckoning across the nation, uncovering the origins of this strange word not just culturally but politically. The ubiquity of the word “chav” in our national lexicon, he argued, was the diffuse result of decades of class-consciousness deflation and attacks on the poor, encouraged by the political establishment. Within just a few years, its usage became as unfashionable as the stereotype it was beholden to.

[3] See: “Paxman vs Russell Brand – full interview – BBC Newnight”, YouTube, 23 October 2013: <> Like Jones, Russell Brand complicated the stereotype of the average working-class man. Open about struggles with addiction and a poor upbringing, his nonetheless effervescent Dandy vocabulary and charming style of argumentation flummoxed people from all backgrounds, but particularly an established media class. His infamous 2013 interview with Jeremy Paxman on the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme Newsnight remains a case in point. Brand comes across as articulate, engaged and eloquent, unlike Paxman, who is otherwise famous for his stoic intelligence but who is here reduced to a closed-minded has-been of a dying political order. Many in the press nonetheless dismissed Brand’s argument for revolution as over-excitable and incoherent, but he spoke for a section of the left that had lost its mainstream voice, and which remained unrepresented in government until the Corbyn era. It was for this reason that Fisher and others admired him.

[4] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative. Winchester: Zer0 Books, 2009, 21.

[5] Luke Akehurst, “Oh dear. Oh dear. Owen Jones”, LabourList, 22 January 2013: <>

[6] Natasha Lennard, “I Don’t Stand with Russell Brand, and Neither Should You”, Salon, 25 October 2013: <>

[7] Ibid.

[8] Mark Fisher, “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, in K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016). London: Repeater Books, 2018, 743.

[9] See: Phoebe Braithwaite, “Mark Fisher’s Popular Modernism”, Tribune, 18 January 2019: <>

[10] Lennard, “I Don’t Stand with Russell Brand, and Neither Should You”.

[11] During the inaugural Mark Fisher memorial lecture at Goldsmiths, University of London, in 2018, Kodwo Eshun mentioned that he and Fisher had a long-standing interest in Kanye’s public profile and its political impact, hoping to one day edit a collection of essays together called Kanye Theory. See: Department of Visual Cultures, Goldsmiths, “Kodwo Eshun: Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture”, YouTube, 6 February 2018: <>

[12] See: Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. London: Zer0 Books, 2014.

[13] Mark Fisher, “Going Overground: The Jam between Populism and Popular Modernism”, Post Punk Then and Now, eds. Gavin Butt, Kodwo Eshun and Mark Fisher. London: Repeater Books, 2016, 100.

[14] Mark Fisher, “Mommy, what’s a grey vampire?”, k-punk, 21 June 2009: <>

[15] On this point, Fisher was inspired by Jodi Dean and her theorising of twenty-first century “communicative capitalism”. See: Jodi Dean, Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010.

[16] See:

[17] Mark Fisher, “Some Clarifications”, k-punk, 18 June 2009: <>

[18] Fisher, “Mommy, What’s a Grey Vampire?”

[19] Fisher, “Exiting the Vampire Castle” in K-Punk, 741-742.

[20] “Capital is dead labour, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.” See: Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin Classics, 1990, 342.

[21] Mark Fisher, “Good for Nothing” in K-Punk, 747.

[22] Wendy Brown, “Resisting Left Melancholy”, boundary 2, Vol. 26, No. 3. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1999, 20. Available online via Verso Books: <>

[23] Marx, Capital Vol. 1, 492fn4.

[24] All three essays are found in K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016).

[25] Mark Fisher, “Touchscreen Capture”, Noon 6: An Annual Journal of Visual Culture and Contemporary Art. Gwangju, South Korea: Gwangju Biennale Foundation, 2016, 12-24.

[26] Mark Fisher, “Digital Psychedelia: The Otolith Group’s Anathema”,  Death and Life of Fiction: Modern Monsters: Taipei Biennial 2012 Journal. Taipei City: Taipei Fine Arts Museum, 2014, 160-166.

[27] Fisher, “Good For Nothing” in K-Punk, 749.

[28] For Fisher, “hippie was fundamentally a middle-class male phenomenon”; a kind of “hedonic infantilism.” This infantilism, he writes elsewhere, is symptomatic of a kind of capitalistic Oedipus complex; a “consequence of the infant’s belief in the Father’s omnipotence [through which they obtain] the conviction that all suffering could be eliminated if only the Father wished it.” See: Mark Fisher, “K-punk, or the Glampunk Art Pop Discontinuum” and “What If We Had A Protest and Everyone Came” in K-Punk.

[29] Mark Fisher, “Acid Communism (Unfinished Introduction)” in K-Punk, 753.

[30] Mark Fisher, “Spinoza, K-Punk, Neuropunk” in K-Punk, 697.

[31] Mark Fisher, “Emotional Engineering”, k-punk, 3 August 2004: <>

[32] Miles Ellingham, “Adam Curtis Talks to Jacobin About Power, Politics, and His New Film”, Jacobin, 10 March 2021: <>