Ahead of its publication in 2009, writer and academic Mark Fisher confided in his partner Zoe that he would be satisfied if his forthcoming book sold 500 copies. 14 years later, and with a second edition published last November, Capitalist Realism has passed 100,000 sales in English alone. Slavoj Žižek, perhaps the world’s most famous philosopher, has described it as “the best diagnosis of our predicament that we have”, while Russell Brand narrated the audiobook. According to Google Scholar, it enjoys more than 4,000 academic citations. Not bad given that Fisher struggled to find teaching work when he wrote it.
My first encounter with Capitalist Realism was in the early months of 2010. While thumbing through the usual suspects in the Gower Street Waterstones, I came across a book of stark brevity with a provocative title. I read it a few months later, and the experience felt akin to a revelation. In half a day, someone I had never seen on TV, or in print, had not only dissected the zeitgeist but provided a whole new register while doing so.
Importantly (and intentionally), the publication of Capitalist Realism came in the wake of the global financial crisis, just as the central claims of neoliberalism were revealed as entirely dishonest (a creed which claimed to want a smaller state needed governments to bail out the financial system). It was into this vacuum – one of growing political realisation coupled with ideological malaise – that Fisher’s first book, written at 41, became an unexpected hit.
Over the next 18 months, as the coalition government came to power and began to implement austerity, the book’s central ideas only became more relevant. When a surprisingly large movement opposed the tripling of tuition fees in the autumn of 2010, Capitalist Realism provided a guidebook on how to counter ‘pro-market’ arguments. For the first time, the claim “there is no alternative” was confidently rejected as an ideological assertion. I recall someone from Universities UK, a lobby group which supported the government’s reforms, being admonished by a student during one debate. “We can have a probe orbiting Mars, but scrapping tuition fees is apparently unrealistic. No, it isn’t.” Fisher had given thousands an ideological toolkit to fight back.
But besides being a vital historical document, Capitalist Realism remains unusually fresh. Indeed, with the failure of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders on both sides of the Atlantic, one might argue it is more relevant today than it was five years ago. This isn’t to deny real gains made by the left, nor the fact that Russian belligerence has returned geopolitics to centre stage, but simply that ‘mainstream’ politicians again feel confident enough to dismiss anyone they label an ‘ideologue’ (this generally means someone proposing a solution to something).
Three ideas within the book remain distinctly pertinent. The first is that of “market Stalinism”. This is Fisher’s claim that market capitalism increasingly imitates Stalinism in valuing “symbols of achievement over actual achievement” (think children and young adults training to pass tests rather than being educated). For market Stalinists, initiatives only matter insofar “as they register at the level of PR appearance”, with Fisher offering Stalin’s ultimately useless White Sea Canal as the historical archetype. This tendency is why, for instance, New Labour generally failed to pursue large infrastructure projects after the much maligned Millennium Dome. It wasn’t that the government didn’t see the need for them, rather it viewed the potential for bad PR as an unacceptable downside.
Since 2009, “market Stalinism” has only grown as the default for contemporary capitalism. Where Stalin built a canal too shallow to be used by anyone but tourists, Elon Musk became the world’s wealthiest man on the basis of public relations and self-generated hype. Meanwhile, the likes of Sam Bankman-Fried, Elizabeth Holmes and Adam Neumann emerged as the avatars of an increasingly PR-oriented post-crisis model, where captains of industry are just as often judged by spin as tangible results. For Fisher, such tendencies find their analogue in the technocratic governance of the centre, which cares as much about “PR production as market mechanisms”. In reality, of course, this is the opposite of technocracy. Indeed, intelligent public policy designed to address problems, and a singular obsession with PR, are often diametrically opposed.
Another idea is that of “reflexive impotence”. This particularly burdens younger people who know the extent of the social and economic problems they face (with stagnant wages and the housing crisis, how couldn’t they) and yet are seemingly resigned to their fate. Fisher’s claim is that this resignation is not the result of apathy or cynicism, but something new. “They know things are bad,” he wrote, “but more than that, they know they can’t do anything about it.” This apparently amounts to an “unstated worldview” amongst younger people, something inseparable from a tidal wave of depression and anxiety.
The widespread adoption of social media is also a factor. As Fisher would write on his blog k-punk in 2006: “What we are facing here is not just time-honoured teenage torpor, but the mismatch between a post-literate ‘New Flesh’ that is ‘too wired to concentrate’ and the confining, concentrational logics of decaying disciplinary systems.” These words were written before the first iPhone, not to mention Instagram and TikTok. We are all addicted to digital technologies and social media, and all at the moment societal challenges compound and elite politics slides to gerontocracy. In combination, this gives rise to reflexive impotence, and a sense that making even basic changes to the status quo is impossible.
Intimately connected to this is the idea of “depressive hedonia”. While depression is a condition usually characterised by anhedonia (the inability to experience pleasure), for Fisher, depressive hedonia is due to an incapacity to do anything but pursue gratification. Such a phrase accurately describes our world today, comprised as it is of social media, an explosion in online gambling, digital pornography and smartphones – with addiction built into everyday products by design. Yet Fisher foresaw this years earlier. “To be bored simply means to be removed from the communicative sensation-stimulus matrix of texting, YouTube and fast food; to be denied, for a moment, the constant flow of sugary gratification on demand.” Elsewhere, he recalls his experiences working in further education. “What we in the classroom are now facing is a generation born into that ahistorical, anti-mnemonic blip culture – a generation, that is to say, for whom time has always come ready-cut into digital micro-slices.” One might read that as ‘old man yells at cloud’, but it was an important insight before the arrival of TikTok, Instagram stories and YouTube shorts. Fisher’s originality was to connect the pitfalls of the attention economy not only to our psychic health, but also our wider political malaise.
Today, six years after his tragic death, Fisher’s efforts to extract the self from such impulses are increasingly part of our culture – whether it’s the call for “deep work” from figures like Cal Newport to the revival of stoicism via authors like Ryan Holiday. Whatever one thinks of these things, they are part of a growing recognition that the relentless pursuit of gratification can make us miserable. This should be common ground for both socialists and thoughtful conservatives alike in the coming years (however rare the latter might be). Indeed, this is perhaps the greatest compliment one can pay to Fisher’s book.
Capitalist Realism is the most important document the British left has produced so far this century. This isn’t because of its conceptual originality, or its author’s ability for systemisation (this was his ambition for a later work), but because it provides a popular register for the torpor at the heart of our political and social life. Recognising this was, and remains, the first step to meaningful action.