Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?

As the title and subtitle of the book would suggest, this book attempts to illuminate what ‘capitalist realism’ is and to understand what a realistic alternative would need to look like. With a heavy emphasis on popular culture as a lense by which we see and understand ourselves, the book deconstructs modern capitalism.

Watching Children of Men, we are inevitably reminded of the phrase attributed to Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. That slogan captures precisely what I mean by ‘capitalist realism’: the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.

One challenge the author notes is that capitalism itself subsumes anything and everything, including the very anti-establishment culture that could provide discourse on a realistic alternative. For example, the author notes on alternative or indie music—

Witness, for instance, the establishment of settled ‘alternative’ or ‘independent’ cultural zones, which endlessly repeat older gestures of rebellion and contestation as if for the first time. ‘Alternative’ and ‘independent’ don’t designate something outside mainstream culture; rather, they are styles, in fact the dominant styles, within the mainstream. No-one embodied (and struggled with) this deadlock more than Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. In his dreadful lassitude and objectless rage, Cobain seemed to give wearied voice to the despondency of the generation that had come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened. Cobain knew that he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliche scripted in advance, knew that even realizing it is a cliche.

How do you create something new when everything new is old and narrative on power structures are absorbed into the very monolith that you critique?

The author goes on to discuss the inevitable consumeristic tragedy of the commons that capitalism creates including the environmental and mental health toll that hides behind the scenes, unincentivized from changing.

The ‘mental health plague’ in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high.

By privatizing these problems - treating them as if they were caused only by chemical imbalances in the individual’s neurology and/or by their family background - any question of social systemic causation is ruled out.

From chapter six, the author focuses on the ineffective bureaucracy created by capitalism, comparing and contrasting it against critiques made against socialism. A specific example is around propaganda created by these systems. The author’s thesis is that modern capitalism optimizes for is not reality, but PR and the perception of reality—

In capitalism, that is to say, all that is solid melts into PR, and late capitalism is defined at least as much by this ubiquitous tendency towards PR-production as it is by the imposition of market mechanisms.

Around here the author devotes a lot of time to discussion on academia and modern bureaucracy. The author clearly had a bone to pick with academic bureaucracy which was fine but—in my opinion—was also a bit of an imperfect fit for the book.

Here, Kafka is raised. As part of this tragedy of the responsibility commons—who’s really responsible? How do you break through the walls of ‘not my job’ to fix the big problems the world faces?

Anger can only be a matter of venting; it is aggression in a vacuum, directed at someone who is a fellow victim of the system but with whom there is no possibility of communality. Just as the anger has no proper object, it will have no effect. In this experience of a system that is unresponsive, impersonal, centerless, abstract and fragmentary, you are as close as you can be to confronting the artificial stupidity of Capital in itself.

This book is more a call-to-action with many more of its pages devoted to the problems of modern life than to their solutions. Importantly the author notes that any solution should stand on its own and be a distinct entity—not a reaction of the past.

We are now in a political landscape littered with what Alex Williams called ‘ideological rubble’ - it is year zero again, and a space has been cleared for a new anti-capitalism to emerge which is not necessarily tied to the old language or traditions. One of the left’s vices is its endless rehearsal of historical debates, its tendency to keep going over Kronsdadt or the New Economic Policy rather than planning and organizing for a future that it really believes in.

Overall, the author wrote a compelling and well thought-out essay that left me wanting to dig more into this subject. I will certainly revisit this someday. I’d encourage anyone with interest in this subject to check on this brief, but well-written essay.

Book cover for Capitalist Realism
Capitalist Realism
Is There No Alternative?
Mark Fisher