The challenge of Capitalist Realism – rebuilding faith in a radical alternative

27 September 2011

Mark Fisher, cultural critic, author of Capitalist Realism (Zero Books: 2009) and a lecturer at Goldsmiths and the University of East London, spoke to Simon Hardy about the state of modern politics, the power of ruling class ideology and the problems of the radical left in the face of the global capitalist crisis.

IT WAS odd but somehow fitting to meet a critic of modern capitalist culture in the newly opened Westfield Shopping Centre in Stratford. Mark Fisher is well known as a music and cultural critic, but he has also written numerous essays on the state of radical politics today and the challenges facing the left an era of ‘capitalist realism’. Drinking coffee surrounded by KFC, McDonalds and thousands of people eating in the food hall, we were immersed in the modern consumer society, a monument to Blair’s Britain. “It feels like you are in the Titanic after it sunk – like this is a museum to pre-2008 capitalism” he laughed.
SH: Can you outline your views on capitalist realism, what does it mean?
“Capitalist Realism is easier to spot than it is to define. A definition is actually quite hard to give because what we are talking about is a belief, but not one just in the heads of individuals. It is a kind of psychic infrastructure; the belief that capitalism is the only possible system. On one level most of us accept this even if we don’t want to accept it, especially since 1989 with the collapse of the USSR.
“Of course the idea that it is the only possible system and we have to subordinate ourselves to it is something that the neo-liberal right have always believed. But the significance of Capitalist Realism is when that belief is shared by the left, or the former left. Many on the left still implicitly hold the view that capitalism cannot be overcome. So anything realistic is on the side of capital and business. This means everyone is supposed to come to terms with business and everything has to be run more like a business.
“In that sense Capitalist Realism is about New Labour, it is no accident that it was written by someone who worked in institutions which were being heavily shaped by New Labour ideology.”
SH: Most of the book was written prior to 2008, so how did the collapse of the western banking system effect its main thesis?
“I joked that when I was writing it that events were outrunning the book and capitalism would be finished before the book was out. I thought this would consign the book to a certain irrelevance. It seemed clear by 2008 that capitalism was not realistic any more. But what we had after the bank bail-outs was just shock doctrine and more of the same. The ebullient confidence has been replaced by desperation, this is the only thing we have and we have go to make it work.”
SH: What do you think about the radical left and its response to the financial crisis?
“What has been exposed is the ubiquitous nature of anti-state attitudes. Today’s mainstream ideology is ostensibly anti-statist, of course in neo-liberalism they instrumentalised the state and they cannot exist without it, but there is this still a very strong anti-state attitude. This is why I am against certain kinds of anarchist currents, because you can’t act as if the rhetoric of self-organisation has not been co-opted. That is not to say there is no value in the concept of self-organisation, it is that you can’t start as if these discourses have not been metabolised by capital.”
SH: At Anticapitalism 2011 you will be speaking on the “new” left versus the “old” left, what’s your take on these terms and the tasks of the left today?
“Well, old vs. new, who has control over that temporality? It is a neo-liberal binary that constructs these terms. ‘New’ means emphasising decentralisation, choice, freedom, whereas ‘old’ means bureaucratic, top down, statist and so on. This has to be broken down. That way of understanding the left is very wrong. We saw that around the student movement. New meant leaderless, completely self-organised, and so on. Firstly, I do not think that it was leaderless. Secondly, it was a failing of the student movement, ultimately, that it stopped in December. There was a failure to sustain the antagonism. And this is because there was a lack of an organisational institution to carry it on.”
SH: What about the famous break in 1968 between the supposed old and new left?
“The important thing to remember is that ‘68 failed, it was not a triumph, there is a strange nostalgia for’ 68, but it ended in failure. Of course there are important gains made as a result of the 60s, but there were significant losses. We can’t go back to the way things were before the 60s happened but we can’t carry on with the same 60s politics. For me the big thing today is co-ordination rather than centralisation. We don’t need centralisation, we need co-ordination. Capital is not centralised, but it is co-ordinated enough to fight us. So we need sufficient globalisation and co-ordination.
SH: So how would you sum up your manifesto for a new left?
“Why are people here [in Westfield] now? It is a degraded form of public space. They don’t have civic squares to go to, so they come to shitty shopping centres.” He motions to the local newspaper we have on the table in front of us. “Look, more than a million people came here last week – they are looking for something they will never find.”
SH: So what is the answer?
“We need to say ‘we are the only people who can deliver modernity and give you what you really want’.”
Mark Fisher will be speaking at Anticapitalism 2011 on the 21-23 October in central London.

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