Forgetting Mark Fisher
Platypus Review 115 | April 2019
“My whole lifetime, every time you think the Left has got somewhere, the Right is one step ahead of it”1 – Mark Fisher (1968-2017)
MARK FISHER WAS OFTEN ASKED what "capitalist realism" is. His most interesting answer was that it is “a pathology of the Left.”2 This cut against other definitions of his oft-used concept, which identified it with “neoliberalism.” What ties the two together is implied in the subtitle to his 2009 book – Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? – alluding to Margaret Thatcher’s infamous assertion, “There is no alternative” (TINA). Fisher thought the Left, in its pathology, had capitulated to neoliberalism, and thus to capitalism. This raises the question of whether the end of neoliberalism will mean the end of capitalist realism, and even the end of capitalism.
In 2009, as the financial crisis heralded a putative return to “Socialism” or “Marx,” Fisher was circumspect. “[W]hile neoliberalism was necessarily capitalist realist, capitalist realism need not be neoliberal. In order to save itself, capitalism could revert to a model of social democracy or to a Children of Men-like authoritarianism. Without a credible and coherent alternative to capitalism, capitalist realism will continue” (Capitalist Realism 78). He accepted neither model, because he was aware of how changes in capitalism had wrong-footed the Left before – indeed, “every time.” But in 2016, when the political crisis of neoliberalism was unavoidable, Fisher changed tone: “Corbyn might be crushed, but I think we can be confident… there is a new wave and we can now start to ride it towards post-capitalism.”3 He thus implies that post-neoliberalism will entail the end of “capitalist realism,” even the end of capitalism – despite his earlier premonition about its continuation through change under “a model of social democracy.”
This change in Fisher’s thought between 2009 and 2016 has two features: his shift from a critique of the 60s New Left to an embrace of the counterculture as “acid communism,” and his shift from a critique of (neo-)social democracy to Corbynism. What accounts for these shifts? Why does he drop his critical detachment? Is it because the crisis and transformation of neoliberalism has really led to the emergence of “a credible and coherent alternative to capitalism,” or because that transformation is actually being led by Trump and Brexit in a way that the Left cannot countenance? Fisher’s unfinished and unpublished blog “The Mannequin Challenge,”4 written a week after Trump’s election and two months before Fisher’s death, suggests the latter. There he dismisses Trump and Brexit as just the intensification of “a strategy that has served the right well for forty years,” and blames the masses’ nostalgia for Empire. But the shock for the Left in 2016 doesn’t account for why his perspective was susceptible to such a collapse in the first place. To address that, we must investigate the theoretical framework of Capitalist Realism.
The core of Fisher’s theoretical framework has been summarized best by Nick Land in a blog post titled “Precursors.”5 There Land quotes extensively from the famous passage in The Communist Manifesto, in which Marx and Engels describe how “[t]he bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part”: “The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations...revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society... All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” Land simply comments: “If Marx and Engels had systematically substituted ‘capitalism’ for ‘the bourgeoisie’ in this passage, its accelerationist credentials would have been vastly upgraded.”
In one sentence, Land has succinctly pinpointed why accelerationism, in both its so-called left and right varieties, differs fundamentally from Marx in its understanding of capitalism and history, and in so doing he has highlighted a fundamental problem with most so-called Marxism.
It is striking that Fisher makes the same substitution in Capitalist Realism. Quoting from the same passage in The Communist Manifesto, he removes “the bourgeoisie” and inserts ‘Capital’: “[Capital] has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies…” etc. (4).6 Whereas for Marx, the emergence of bourgeois society – when “freedom dawned on the world,” as Hegel said of Rousseau – was the revolutionary condition for the possibility of human emancipation, for Land and Fisher, it is an unfortunate 19th century myth, which they exorcise.
This elision of the bourgeois revolution leads to a quite different understanding of capitalism from that of Marx. For Marx, capitalism was not identical with the bourgeois revolution and the emancipation of social relations based on labor. Rather, capitalism is the fundamental crisis and self-contradiction of bourgeois society in the industrial revolution of the 19th century: a new historical contradiction, in which labor was undermining its own value. This is not the same as saying, as Fisher does, that “Capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics.” (4)
Eliding bourgeois society from Marx’s account of history and capitalism leaves Fisher with a flat theory of history, in which capitalism is simply the destruction of belief systems, cultures and what he calls “lifeworlds.” To confirm his reading of Marx, Fisher prominently cites Badiou, who shares this elision of bourgeois emancipation from the theory of history. As Chris Cutrone has argued, Badiou’s “communist hypothesis” is a transhistorical principle opposed to bourgeois society, which is mistakenly identified with capitalism as one-sided destruction. However, the “Marxist hypothesis… recognized the possibility, not of opposition [to], but of a qualitative transformation, in, through, and beyond bourgeois society.”7 Fisher’s anti-capitalism is reduced to the never-ending struggle against oppression, missing Marx’s historically specific claims.8
Fisher uses this theory of capitalism to explain “capitalist realism,” or why there seems to be no alternative. Because capitalism is just the desacralization of all culture, reducing it to a “system of equivalence,” we regard everything with an ironic detachment, as a “consumer-spectator,” severely hampering our ability to be motivated around a political alternative to capitalism. This means that any alternative to capitalism must come from outside this process. This is where Badiou’s transhistorical “communist hypothesis” comes in handy, as a tendency that appears to transcend the two temporalities of pre-modern “lifeworlds” and capitalism.
But doesn’t the existence of a Left, however weak, belie such a strong claim about capitalism destroying any alternative? On the contrary, Fisher thinks the Left (c.2009) is both cause and effect of “capitalist realism.” He argues that the Left’s “actual aim was not to replace capitalism but mitigate its worst excesses.” (14) The Left fetishized its own failure, retreating to concerns about “ethical immediacy” and “diversity” (16), and “endlessly repeat[ing] older gestures of rebellion and contestation as if for the first time” (9), masking a “morose conservatism” (78).
Fisher traced this “pathology” of the Left to what he saw as the 60s New Left’s misunderstanding of capitalism. He argues that they took capitalism to be a form of authoritarian ideology, like a stingy father figure. However, because in Fisher’s account capitalism is not an organized ideology in that way, but simply “what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration,” such protests only served – here he follows Zizek – to project leftists’ disavowal of capitalism harmlessly elsewhere. Post-ideological capitalism doesn’t need you to believe in it; after all, it is the ironizing of all belief.
Following this rejection of capitalism as an organized ideology, Fisher goes on to argue that there is no necessity to how capitalism is structured: “As any number of radical theorists from Brecht through to Foucault and Badiou have maintained, emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable” (16). Fisher bases this claim for “mere contingency” on his explanation of Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of capitalism as deterritorialization and reterritorialization “on an ad hoc basis” (5).
A second consequence of Fisher’s theory of capitalism and subsequent critique of the New Left is a rejection of any notion of subjectivity. Following Zizek, Fisher argues that because capitalism is just the ironizing of all belief, “the operations of capital do not depend on any sort of subjectively assumed belief” (12). This chimes with his anti-neoliberalism, arguing against personal individual responsibility, whether for one’s own depression or for politics. Again, this follows from the Deleuzian framework he employs, in which capitalism is just the negation of all subjectively assumed belief.
In Fisher’s conception of capitalism bourgeois society’s emergence is just a ruse for capitalism’s wanton destruction, collapsing all “beliefs” and “lifeworlds.” Just as this approach projects postmodern irony back onto the history of capitalism, so too his anti-subject, anti-individual philosophy projects neoliberal “individualism” back onto bourgeois society. In “Democracy is Joy,”9 Fisher argues that the subject, freedom and causality are just “superstitions.” Like pre-modern superstitions, they are – in Fisher’s Foucauldianism – a form of “secular power,” only superficially different from “theocratic power.” Kant’s transcendental critique, Fisher argues, simply serves to prop up the fiction of the individual subject as the basis of the destructive “economy” of “capital,” which “bent and melted the matter of this and every other world to fit its presuppositions – the greatest theocratic achievement in a history that was never human.”
In trying to overcome neoliberalism’s “individualism,” Fisher accepts the neoliberal antinomy of “individual” and “collective,” simply inverting it. Thus he writes, “When Thatcher said “there is no such thing as society,” she was only echoing the assumptions of Hume and Smith.” But Adam Smith was nothing if not a theorist of society per se, for whom through free exchange “society itself grows to be what is properly a commercial society.”10 By embracing “mere contingency” and rejecting “subjectivity,” it is Fisher, not Adam Smith, for whom “there is no such thing as society.” Like Deleuze, Fisher takes up Spinoza as a solution, arguing that inserting oneself in this “naturalistic matrix of cause and effect” is the way to go “for human beings who want to move in the direction of love and freedom.” This “naturalistic” determinism is the perfect flipside to “mere contingency.” Like Badiou’s “communist hypothesis” the abstract invocation of “love and freedom” elides bourgeois society as the basis for thinking the conditions for the possibility of change, and oscillates between contingency and necessity, voluntarism and determinism.
For Marx, the emergence of bourgeois society is crucial for grasping the theory of history and of capitalism. Capitalism is not, as Fisher has it, “what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration,” but the self-contradiction of bourgeois social relations under conditions of industrial capital. In this sense, contra Fisher and Zizek, Marx think that capitalism does depend on some “subjectively assumed belief,” namely the bourgeois consciousness of the working class demanding the value of its labor, which reproduces capitalism from below. Thus Marx sought to critically grasp how the working class, expressing the self-contradiction in its demand for its bourgeois right under conditions of industrial capital, could become conscious of the need to overcome itself – to abolish itself.
Fisher’s assertion that the Left must show that everything is “mere contingency” raises the question of how a conscious subject could grasp reality such that it could be transformed. He reproduces the old antinomy of necessity and contingency, one-sidedly endorsing the latter. Marx registered this antinomy in response to the rise of Louis Bonaparte in 1848-52. Whereas for Victor Hugo, Bonaparte’s rise to power was the contingent result of “the violent act of a single individual,” for Proudhon, it was the expression of a necessary historical development. As Marx puts it, while for Hugo it was “like a bolt from the blue,” Proudhon “falls into the error of our so-called objective historians.”11 Marx himself tried to grasp these two opposed interpretations – necessity and contingency, determinism and voluntarism – critically, as a dialectical antinomy that pointed beyond itself.
Because Fisher, following Deleuze and Badiou, elides bourgeois society, he elides the basis of not only the working-class movement for Socialism, but its critical self-consciousness in Marxism. As Lukacs put it: “because [the proletariat's] practical goal is the fundamental transformation of the whole of society it conceives of bourgeois society together with its intellectual and artistic productions as the point of departure for its own method.”12 But for Fisher there is no bourgeois society and so there is no point of departure for proletarian class consciousness. We are left with “mere contingency.” Fisher is forced to find some kind of outside: Badiou’s communist invariant, or “love and freedom,” or as we will see later, “acid communism.” Marx saw the proletarian class struggle as the symptom of the self-contradiction of bourgeois society in which right met right, i.e. the equal rights of capital and labor. Capitalism is an historically unprecedented problem of “social domination.” For Fisher, on the other hand, the class struggle is the transhistorical struggle of the oppressed versus the oppressors, or “human beings who want to move in the direction of love and freedom” versus the “Grey Anglo-Saxon Protestant capitalist sorcerers” (as he puts it later in “Democracy is Joy”).
The liquidation of bourgeois society from Marx’s account, thus leading to the embrace of “mere contingency” (and its counterpart, determinism), and the rejection of subjectivity, is the basis on which Fisher accepts the neoliberal framework, merely inverting its values. The Badiouian-Deleuzian account of capitalism Fisher builds on is compelling to him because it confirms his one-sided anti-neoliberalism, in which Adam Smith is thrown under the bus, because we all hate Thatcher, and we can will TINA away by declaring capitalism to be “mere contingency.” For example, the rejection of subjectivity in order to go against supposed neoliberal “individualism,” instead embracing “collectivity” or “community” remains within the neoliberal framework. As Gillian Rose wrote in Mourning Becomes the Law, diagnosing the early 1990s, the period of Fisher’s intellectual formation in the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, “We have given up communism – only to fall more deeply in love with the idea of ‘the community.’”13 “Neoliberalism” did not depend just on “individualism” but a fetishization of “the community”; they formed an antinomy, neither term of which grasped society.
Fisher’s liquidation of Marxism by eliding bourgeois society from the theory of history is a symptom of a common trend on the Left, and not just in recent decades. It goes back to the Old Left, from “vulgar Marxism,” which neglected the question of subjectivity in favor of a positive ethic of “communism,” to Heidegger, who similarly dismisses the problems of bourgeois subjectivity as “western metaphysics.”14 The New Left, too, rejected bourgeois society as the starting point of the proletariat’s method. As Susan Sontag famously argued, parliamentary government, the emancipation of women, Kant and Marx all couldn’t redeem “Western white civilization,” the “cancer of human history,” which simply “eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads.” This account of the eradication of autonomous civilizations sounds very similar to Fisher’s account of history, in which capitalism is the destruction of “lifeworlds” by “Grey Anglo-Saxon Protestant capitalist sorcerers.”
It is for these reasons that the structure Fisher erected was susceptible to the shockwaves of 2016. Fisher’s theory of capitalism and the critique of the Left that he develops from it are premised on (anti-)neoliberalism to such an extent that the crisis of neoliberalism melted away his earlier circumspection. While Capitalist Realism ends with a call for a “Marxist Supernanny” to discipline the Left out of its pathological state, this return to Marx owed more to Badiou and Deleuze, and compounded the long-standing liquidation of Marxism. This collapse took form in two main shifts in Fisher’s thought: his shift from a critique of the 60s New Left to an embrace of the counterculture as “acid communism,” and his shift from a critique of (neo-)social democracy to Corbynism.
While Fisher was once skeptical of changes to neoliberalism signaling the end of “capitalist realism,” because he knew how the Left had been wrong-footed by changes in capitalism before, in the 2015 UK general election, he embraced a weak form of social democracy as a way out of neoliberalism. The durée of neoliberalism has been so unbearable that the signs of cracks were overwhelming. As he wrote of the TV election debates: “capitalist realism is so deeply embedded that it was hard not to feel a frisson when, for instance, [Leanne] Wood [of Plaid Cymru] defended trade unions and the welfare state…. Here is one picture of a post-neoliberal UK: a soft left regaining its confidence on the one hand, a glowering far right on the other, nothing where the capitalist realist “middle” used to be.”15
He still sees the alternatives for post-neoliberalism, as he did in 2009, to be a soft-left social democracy or an authoritarian right, but in capitulating to the former, he forgets his earlier claim that such a change within capitalism would perpetuate “capitalist realism,” not to mention the New Left’s critique of the welfare state or the earlier observation of the Frankfurt School that the Fordist welfare state was the authoritarian state. It is instructive to note that this shift in his thought happens before Jeremy Corbyn arrived on the scene after the 2015 election. Corbyn is not an “accident of history,” as the Weekly Worker often argues;16 he is a symptom and not the cause of a revamped social democracy on the Left, which might well have unfolded similarly without him. Indeed, this can be traced back to Obama’s calls for a new New Deal in 2008, now rebooted as Millennial “Socialism.”
The return to social democracy is prepared by Fisher’s anti-neoliberalism, which idealizes the condition of left-wing politics in the post-war era of the Fordist welfare state. During this time, Fisher became close to the self-described “anti-authoritarian communist” activist group Plan C. They too, in 2015, as now, were willing to endorse what they called “plan B” – i.e. social democracy as opposed to plan A (austerity) and plan C (communism). As Fisher wrote in 2015: “[I]t’s perfectly plausible that a Labour-SNP coalition could now achieve what Jeremy Gilbert and I argue that New Labour could have been expected to attempt: “make some efforts to change the strategic situation in the long-term: to rebuild the unions, to re-energize local government, to facilitate the growth of an alternative media sector…” [the] Blairites… are as out of date now as Blair argued “Old Labour” was in 1997.”17 The crisis of the Labour party in recent times offers the chance for the fulfillment of what Blair had promised but not fulfilled, not only for Millennials, but despairing Gen X leftists.
One suspects, as Fisher did of the 90s “anti-capitalist” left, that their “actual aim [is] not to replace capitalism but to mitigate its worst excesses.” Certainly, as Fisher predicted in Capitalist Realism, this lowering of horizons will mean that “capitalist realism” as a pathology of the Left will outlast the neoliberal era. A further sign of this “deflationary consciousness” (Fisher’s phrase for the Left’s “morose conservatism” masked by passionate activism) is the self-delusion that even if the Left is defeated, the tide is nonetheless turning in its favor. As Fisher put it in a public lecture in 2016, “Corbyn might be crushed, but I think we can be confident… there wouldn’t have been Corbyn without Syriza… there is a new wave and we can now start to ride it towards post-capitalism.”18 The certain prospect of a “capitalist realist” post-neoliberal capitalism, even under a Corbyn government, is blotted out.
Perhaps to combat this form of “deflationary consciousness,” Fisher turned to forms of “consciousness raising” salvaged from the 60s-70s New Left under the rubric of “acid communism,” the title of the book he was planning at the time of his suicide. Whereas in 2009, “capitalist realism” was “a pathology of the Left” that developed as a consequence of a bad repetition of the 60s, with Acid Communism Fisher began to focus on neoliberalism as a strategy of the Right to destroy the 60s-70s experiments in “democratic Socialism” and “consciousness raising.” “We must regain the optimism of that seventies moment.”19
This is a remarkable reversal of his earlier position. Against the thesis of Adam Curtis’ documentary Hypernormalisation (BBC, 2016), which Fisher once shared, that the counterculture led to neoliberalism, Fisher begins to argue that “the failure of the left after the 60s had much [more] to do with its repudiation of, or refusal to engage with, the dreamings that the counterculture unleashed.”20 It is interesting to note that the name “acid communism” came to Fisher when he heard the actor David Tennant describe the New Left psychologist R.D. Laing as “the acid Marxist.” Fisher changed this to “acid communism,” completing his affinity to Badiou’s “communist hypothesis.” In the crisis of neoliberalism it seems the Left will not recover Marxism’s negativity, but the supposed “positivity” of “communism.” Presumably the acid is there so that we realize that everything is “mere contingency.”
In the crisis of neoliberalism this return to the New Left goes hand in hand with a return to the Old Left: the return to Labourism and social democracy, as well as to a nostalgia for Stalinist Communist Parties.21 In the crisis of neoliberalism the Left is trying to belatedly put the 20th century back together again, as if the political disputes on the Left had never happened. Fisher sought a return to the cultural revolution of the New Left, but without the destruction of the welfare state – wishing for the Blair that never was. Fisher wanted the old and the new. As he wrote in 2014, “We don’t have to choose between class politics and anti-authoritarianism any more than we need to choose between Gramsci, Deleuze, and Guattari.”22
This sentiment was also expressed in the editorial to the recently revived Tribune magazine, a relic of the Labour Left, which this January featured Mark Fisher.23 The editorial to the first issue, titled “The Old and the New,”24 affirmatively quotes Michael Foot: “The old dogmas are as good as ever.” But putting the Old and the New Left back together again in this way is not an act of remembering but an act of forgetting: forgetting that the old Labour Left, which the Stalinist Communist Party supported, was never about overcoming capitalism, but as Fisher puts it, “mitigat[ing] its worst excesses”; forgetting that the New Left ever broke with the Old Left and opposed the welfare state; forgetting the critique of the New Left’s abandonment of politics for the gesture of oppositional culture; forgetting what is sore about the past, because it has not been overcome.
Fisher was well aware of this type of forgetting. In Capitalist Realism he described how “forgetting becomes an adaptive strategy”: by “editing out the point of suture,” we can accept “the incommensurable” (56). The Left participates in this forgetting to convince itself that “there is a new wave and we can now start to ride it towards post-capitalism.” The collapsing of the Millennial Left in to the Labour party has reconciled the previously incommensurable by adding the Old and the New together and lowering their horizons, compelled by a fear of the ‘new’, which is inevitably coming from the Right. But as Fisher put it a decade ago, “resistance to the ‘new’ is not a cause that the Left can or should rally around” (28). To read Mark Fisher against the grain would mean to re-expose the sutures in the history of the Left, to expose what is still sore.| P
- CCI Collective, “All of this is temporary,” <https://youtu.be/deZgzw0YHQI>↩
- “Preoccupying: Mark Fisher.” The Occupied Times, May 3, 2012. <https://theoccupiedtimes.org/?p=3454>↩
- CCI Collective, “All of this is temporary.”↩
- Published in the new anthology, K-Punk.↩
- Land, Nick. “Acceleration.” Urban Future (2.1). <http://www.ufblog.net/acceleration/>↩
- At least Land is up-front in telling us that this substitution would alter Marx and Engels’ argument. Fisher slips it in without telling us, using those square brackets, without any recognition that it might significantly alter the point. I am sure Land was aware that Fisher had already “upgraded” poor old Marx and Engels in this way. Land is just more explicit about the stakes of such a move. The virtue of Land’s paltry “neo-reactionary” “right” accelerationism is that it need not obfuscate by claiming Marx, as Fisher does as a “left” accelerationist, but can be clearer about the consequences of their shared Deleuzian philosophy.↩
- Cutrone, Chris. “The Marxist hypothesis.” Platypus Review, November 6, 2010. <https://platypus1917.org/2010/11/06/the-marxist-hypothesis-a-response-to-alain-badous-communist-hypothesis/>↩
- Ironically, this reproduces exactly what Fisher and other “accelerationists” claimed to oppose in the ’90s anti-globalization Left. As we will see, they form two complementary fragments of the fall-out of the New Left.↩
- Fisher, Mark. “Democracy is Joy.” July 13, 2015. <http://k-punk.org/democracy-is-joy>↩
- Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Bk 1, Ch 4.↩
- 1869 preface to The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.↩
- Lukacs, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat.”↩
- Rose, Gillian. “Athens and Jerusalem: a tale of three cities,” Mourning Becomes the Law, 1996.↩
- Fisher’s dismissal of the bourgeois revolutionary transformation of the world as “the greatest theocratic achievement in a history that was never human,” has a certain Heideggerian ring to it.↩
- Fisher, Mark. “Limbo is over.” April 26, 2015. <https://k-punk.org/limbo-is-over/>↩
- Ford, Eddie. “Firing the first shots.” Weekly Worker, September 17, 2015. <https://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1074/firing-the-first-shots/>↩
- CCI Collective, “All of this is temporary.”↩
- K-Punk, p. 770↩
- K-Punk, p. 756↩
- As was in evidence in Jodi Dean’s lecture, “Capitalism is the end of world,” The Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture 2019. <https://www.gold.ac.uk/calendar/?id=12106>↩
- Fisher, Mark. “For now, our desire is nameless.” The European, May 20, 2014. <https://www.theeuropean-magazine.com/mark-fisher--2/8480-is-there-an-alternative-to-capitalism>↩
- Braithwaite, Phoebe. “Mark Fisher’s Popular Modernism.” Tribune, January 18, 2019. <https://tribunemag.co.uk/2019/01/mark-fisher-kpunk-popular-modernism>↩
- Burtenshaw, Ronan. “The Old and the New.” Tribune, November 26, 2018. <https://tribunemag.co.uk/2018/11/the-old-and-the-new>↩