Spiral Book Club: Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher

Tomas Einarsson

Mark Fisher’s 2009 book Capitalist Realism can have a revolutionary effect on those who have lived to experience the uncanny atmosphere it describes. In short, capitalist realism is ‘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.’ (CR, p.2) In other words, it’s an attempt to describe the current zeitgeist: how it feels like history has come to an end, that there are no alternatives to the status quo continuing and how we aren’t able to answer the question: is this really it?

But It’s in this most wonderful kind of rationalism that Capitalist Realism can give us a crash course in concept creation in the tradition of continental philosophy. Drawing on thinkers like Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Slavoj Žižek, Frederic Jameson, Jacques Lacan, the Frankfurt School, Fisher paints a most atmospheric picture - one that is philosophically illustrative and intellectually dense.

Any reader will probably also notice that at its core, Capitalist Realism is built chiefly on the thought of philosopher Gilles Deleuze and his co-conspirator Félix Guattari. Fisher regularly quotes the two, deftly reframing their obtuse works Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus into digestible bits of insight. These books, by their very nature, can be dense and esoteric. But Fisher, in forging a new approach to theory and philosophy and life itself, reframes nominally complex concepts as catalysts for novel kinds of seeing.

Thus, Fisher constructs a vision of capital (an amorphous entity) and capitalism (the lived experience) as a machine made up of smaller mechanisms, an ineffable but immanent frame made up of tangible sub-phenomena such as ‘market stalinism’,’the privatisation of stress’, ‘reflexive impotence’, ‘post-lexia’ or capital as ‘the unnamable Thing’.

It’s by linking very real aspects of life under capitalism to serious continental philosophy by which Fisher displays (and teaches) how to apply old concepts and create new illustrative frames - thereby giving his readers the ability to sufficiently describe and name the dizzying effects of the neoliberal rat race. Broadly, the continental philosophy which so inspired Fisher (and in turn inspires his readers) is an umbrella term for an approach to thinking itself. Marxism, Lacanian psychoanalysis, The Frankfurt School and French schools of thought aligned with Baudrillard, Deleuze, Lyotard and co. may all fall under that rubric - and all have in common a method privileging unrelenting analysis of the world around us. Critique takes centre stage in Fisherian thought, as it does in continental thought, and out of a vast array of frameworks Fisher picks some from his shelf and uses them to illustrate and name mechanisms, atmospheres and experiences we all feel, but never had a name for.

It also doubles as a crash course in the previously mentioned serious continental philosophy as Fisher casually namedrops these scholars and philosophers while never overstepping into the academically esoteric. Some passages are more complex than others, yes, but come with the neat side-effect of making you want to research the philosophies mentioned - if only to fully understand what Fisher is getting at.

What strikes me most on every re-read, nevertheless, is that the capitalism of capitalist realism is one that ultimately cannot be captured in words, but rather manifests itself in a pervasive atmosphere that occupies the horizons of the imaginable. Fisher often reaches for gothic language and alludes to horror in attempts to capture the general outline of an indescribable capital-monstrosity, as for Fisher ‘capitalism is very much like the Thing in John Carpenter's film of the same name: a monstrous, infinitely plastic entity, capable of metabolizing and absorbing anything with which it comes into contact.’ (CR p. 6). This, to me, has always elicited visions of an almost Lovecraftian entity; a thing which eludes all description and is liable to drive you crazy should you contemplate it for too long.

Other parts haven’t matured as well - or may not have been all too fresh to begin with. Take the section in chapter four in which Fisher discusses the plight of the hyper-connected, hyper-online youth and their proclivity to fall back on ‘the soft narcosis, the comfort food oblivion of Playstation, all-night TV and marijuana.’ It’s in these passages where Fisher risks coming across as boomer-y, decrying young peoples’ laziness and inability to keep their chin high in the face of insurmountable-seeming circumstances. But it’s pertinent to remember that Fisher, at no point, boils these behaviours down to personal shortcomings. Indeed, a core crux of Capitalist Realism is the endemic nature of depression, anxiety, and overwhelming stress must be understood as a feature, rather than a bug, of capitalism; that the proliferation of mental distress is never a personal problem, but a collective one.

That being said, it’s also hard to deny the book’s bleak tone. Some may find it hard to have all the specific ways in which capitalist realism oppresses us laid out like this - only to re-emphasise that there are no words and no quick-and-easy countermeasures to fight an atmosphere-entity capable of absorbing all its contradictions in advance and commodifying everything before we’ve had to chance to really enjoy it. It’s in these moments in which it’s best to remember that the book came out nearly fifteen years ago - and that we’ve since seen whole new hopeful horizons emerge where before there was only more of the same.

Indeed, Fisher had planned a follow-up to Capitalist Realism called Acid Communism. It would have certainly been a similar text, full of philosophical re-deployments and pop-culture references with the intent purpose of providing counterweight to Capitalist Realism, like an antidote-manifesto yinging CR’s yang. The idea was to reclaim communism from its loaded twentieth-century meanings, reconceptualising it as one of near-infinite possibility and unafraid of utopian impulse. Inspired by psychedelia, it was about a ‘new humanity, a new seeing, a new thinking, a new loving’. For Fisher, ‘this is the promise of acid communism.’ (‘Acid Communism: Unfinished Introduction’ p.767, K-Punk).

Fisher, in the end, lost his battle with depression in January, 2017, leaving a lasting lysergic legacy in his wake and Acid Communism as his final (unfinished) work. Read closely and in Capitalist Realism you’ll find a galvanising handbook to concept creation, an erudite introduction to a vast array of thinkers and a means to critically engage with the weird zeitgeist that everyone can sense but can’t quite put their finger on. I often warn people that CR is something of an infohazard - a piece of information which, once learned, cannot be so easily ignored. Once you become aware of Capitalist Realism, whether as a book or as an idea, it’s hard to shake it.

Capitalist Realism is available in full online.

design and cover by Kateryna Skipochka