In a 1980 speech, Margaret Thatcher would come up with a phrase which was to become the cornerstone of neoliberal ideology “There’s no such thing as society”. In 1979, 13.6% of the British population lived with below 60% of median incomes. By 1990, that number would rise up to 22.2 %. Union membership shrunk from 13.2 million people to 9.8 by the time Thatcher was out of office. The largest miner strike was ruthlessly crushed. Inequality soared, reaching levels unimaginable since after WW2. How could this be justified? Simple: Free market capitalism was presented as having no alternatives.
Capitalism is here to stay, and any inequality and poverty that result are just the cost of doing business. The Keynesian dream of a mixed economy had ended. Any other alternative system was seen as either naïve, utopic or both. It is with the start of neoliberal era where we see the emergence of what the late Mark Fisher calls “Capitalist realism”: the notion that capitalism is the only viable way of organizing a society. Anything else becomes simply unimaginable.
Mark Fisher and Capitalist Realism: Catastrophe Strikes
In the collective imagination, the end of the world – also known as the apocalypse – is imagined as a singular event, as a nuclear explosion, as an asteroid hitting the earth, as a mysterious disease spreading like wildfire, as an alien civilization wiping us from the face of the earth, as a “bang”. It is certainly not imagined the way we’re living through it now.
Earlier this year, a climate activist set himself on fire at the Supreme court to protest the lack of reaction to the climate crisis. Barely any of the publications seemed to focus on the reason why, however. David Buckel, a lawyer and an environmental activist, had done the same thing in 2018, writing in his suicide letter:
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“Here is a hope that giving a life might bring some attention to the need for expanded action.”
No action seems to have been taken since then, at least nothing substantial. After taking a short break during the pandemic, CO2 emissions are on track to reach their record high levels again – a record that was previously set in 2019.. We’ve known about climate change at least since the early 60s, we know where we’re headed if we keep this up, yet this disaster seems impossible to stop. Why?
Mark Fisher and Green Capitalism
The problem of climate catastrophe is one which goes straight to the heart of capitalist realism. If you search you’ll find plenty of “solutions” to climate change and you’ll find that all these solutions do not seem to take into account the kernel of the problem which is that capitalism always needs to expand, we need to consume more, companies need to earn more than last month and GDP needs to keep going up.
A capitalist economy with no growth hits a recession and a capitalist economy with growth hits the finite boundaries of our planet. No matter what awesome, cool, green solutions are invented in the future, capitalism’s growth imperative will still be there. Rarely any “solutions” seem to be able to name capitalism as the problem of growth. Growth is treated as a fact of nature; it is taken for granted. All we can do is manage the consequences.
Mark Fisher, however, sees political potential in the climate crisis. It is a crack which threatens to expose capitalist realism for what it is, not a necessary state of reality at all but a collective delusion which has convinced us we can keep the structures of capital accumulation intact and solve the crisis at the same time. This delusion has convinced us that we can solve what was caused by capitalism and technological exploitation with yet more capitalism and technological exploitation of the planet.
Fisher tells us that we’re living through the end of the world. It doesn’t end with a bang. It unravels slowly, the world degrades, systems fall apart. Fisher’s reading of the movie “Children of Men” provides an analogy to what we’re living through.
In “Children of Men”, people with the traditional capacity to give birth have become sterile. The youngest person in the world is pronounced dead at the start of the movie. The new can no longer be born. Fisher asks, how long can a culture persist without the new? We see this in our own music, fashion, architecture. Our cultural obsession with “retro” or “vintage” speaks to a deep cultural impotence, an inability to create a new authentic act.
We’re stuck on a cultural loop based on movie reruns, adaptations, and franchises. Time has forgotten to move forward. Even wild futuristic dreams aren’t new at all. They’re simply an extension of the same into the future and into the stars. Capitalist realism haunts the imagined future. As Murray Bookchin puts in a 1979 speech:
“So, a lot of people are walking around today who sound very idealistic. And what do they want to do? They want multinational corporations to become multi-cosmic corporations [laughter from the audience]—literally! ..Most futurists start out with the idea, ‘you got a shopping mall, what do you do then?’ Well, the first question to be asked is, ‘why the hell do you have a shopping mall?’ [laughter] That is the real question that has to be asked.”
The Limits of What Is Thinkable
Capitalism is preserved even in our wildest futuristic dreams. It has infected our collective imagination to such a degree that we literally cannot imagine a world without it even 300 or 1000 years from now. We’re on Mars, we’re traveling through a black hole, we’re teleporting through space but we’re still imagining that all of this happens under a capitalist economy.
Capitalism is so dominant that it has invaded the horizons of what is thinkable. Capitalist realism for Fisher is not realism in the classical sense but rather fatalism or cynicism, the thought that “this is as good as it gets”. To hope for more is naive. “Get real” attitudes are imposed onto anyone who hopes for something better.
Capitalism has seeped into our unconscious; it even colonizes our dreams. Capitalist realism is “a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action”. We find it difficult to think beyond it. Even those critiques of capitalism we see in the media do not seem to be doing any damage at all. They’re easily absorbed into its logic of consumption and even help perform anti-capitalism on our behalf, so we don’t have to.
The current order is naturalized. It isn’t experienced as a particular order or system at all. It’s just how life is. Jordan Peterson, a famous self-help guru and psychologist, has the rule “Abandon ideology” listed as number 6 of his “12 More Rules for Life” book (turned out the first 12 didn’t quite suffice). This implies that ideology is like a pair of glasses that distort your view of reality, something you can take off at any time and see the world for “what it really is”.
There is nothing more ideological than thinking that you’ve gone beyond ideology. Ideology isn’t a dogma or a lie which can be dispelled. Ideology is the shared fantasy which shapes social reality itself and draws its experiential boundaries. Capitalist realism represents the most sophisticated form of ideology. If we see soviet propaganda now and can easily see through the lies and manipulation that were going on, in capitalism this is far more difficult to articulate.
Capitalism is not experienced as a particular, socio-historical system we’re living through but as the embodiment of pure reality itself. The free market is just like a jungle, the small get eaten and only those who can adapt survive. Economists habitually throw around sentences like “a decision to increase wages will upset the market” as though the market is a god above us and not our own creation, as though it is a living, independent thing.
Mental Health in the Bubble of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism
Capitalist countries seem to be plagued with a mental health epidemic, high stress rate, high depression rates, soaring anxiety and ADHD, to name a few. Capitalist realism seems to be dedicated to depoliticizing mental health, to make it an issue of the individual, a chemical imbalance which can be balanced by paying a drug company for pills.
The psychologist locates your worries within your family triangle, a strict dad growing up or an uncaring mother. That’s why you’re unhappy now. The psychiatrist locates the problem somewhere in your brain chemistry. You lack serotonin. Take some and restore the balance. They never seem to ask why so many people seem to be mentally ill. We’re supposedly living in the greatest of times – so why do we feel worse than ever?
Mark Fisher asserts that there is a dire need to politicize mental health, to see it as a social, impersonal problem that should be tackled at a large, systemic scale, not reduced to whispers trapped in the room of a therapist. We need connections with the rest of the community, we need to connect our stories in order to see the full picture. To paraphrase Fisher, our current ruling ontology seeks to deny any claims that mental illnesses are socially caused. Whilst all mental illnesses are to some degree neurologically instantiated, this doesn’t say anything about their cause.
Depression might as well be correlated with low serotonin levels, but this doesn’t explain why so many people have low serotonin levels. The psychiatrist and psychological institutions perform the function of depoliticizing mental illness. A new political project must emerge to show that mental health is political, that we are not separate islands floating in ether but people who live in a particular time, under a particular economy, with particular laws, within a particular cultural context. Once this is realized, we can connect our stories, find the common denominator and start to collectively push back, not just through better pills but through rebuilding our communities and getting our voices to tear the apathetic membrane of capitalist realism.