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The Beginning of the End of Capitalist Realism

Mark Fisher died two years ago this month. He helped us see the collective depression we have all lived in for decades. If only he could have seen that depression finally start to lift.

Claude Monet, "Path in the Fog." 1887

Mark Fisher struggled his entire life with depression. That struggle culminated in his suicide, two years ago this month.

For him, depression wasn’t solely an individual affliction, the result of a miswired brain or an imbalanced chemical or two. As he wrote in several essays in K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016), recently published by Repeater Books, he came to see depression as also a social affliction. And the social has given us plenty to be depressed about over the past four decades.

He often experienced his depression as a “sneering” voice inside his head. That voice felt deeply personal, to be sure. But Mark came to see that voice as “the internalized expression of actual social forces.” And those forces “have a vested interest in denying any connection between depression and politics.”

Those social forces were tied, no doubt, to the concept he was most famous for: “capitalist realism.” Capitalist realism, he wrote in his book of the same name, is “the widespread acceptance that there is no alternative to capitalism.” It’s not an enthusiastic embrace of neoliberal capitalism — that embrace has long passed, if it ever existed. Rather, it’s a widespread sense of resignation over the foregone conclusion that neoliberal capitalism is the only game in town.

“Neoliberalism now shambles on as a zombie,” he writes, “but as the aficionados of zombie films are well aware, it is sometimes harder to kill a zombie than a living person.”

Mark saw that resignation to neoliberalism everywhere he looked. And as anyone who picks this book up will see, he looked in many, many places.

He saw it in the music of Flo-Rida, Pitbull, and will.i.am, about which he wrote: “It’s hard not to hear these records’ demands that we enjoy ourselves as thin attempts to distract from a depression that they can only mask, never dissipate. A secret sadness lurks behind the twenty-first-century’s forced smile.”

He saw the rise of Donald Trump and Brexit as a reaction to that resignation: both represented a “fantasy of nationalist revival,” and however absurd that fantasy was, it at least suggested there is an alternative to capitalist realism.

He saw that resignation in the Left, in its stubborn commitment to anarchist and anarchist-inspired styles of action and organizing. Reflecting in 2013 on the “exhilarating outbursts of militancy [that] recede as quickly as they erupt, without producing any sustained change” since the financial crash, he observed a sense of “anarchist fatalism” throughout the Left. Activists’ refusal to adopt tactics that could actually vie for power in the state and transform mass media narratives was, he argued, an unwitting reflection of depressive resignation.

“Neo-anarchism,” he wrote, “isn’t so much of a challenge to capitalist realism as it is one of its effects.”

And he saw that resignation in how leftists communicated with each other, describing, in one of his most famous essays, “Exiting the Vampire’s Castle,” how leftists have abandoned solidarity, shared experience, and common purpose in favor of essentialism, individual turf-guarding, and brand-building, often weaponizing identity to bludgeon each other rather than build an effective movement. Tragically, the approach paralyzes these movements, making them unable to take up the urgent task of fighting oppression or much of anything else.

I don’t blame Mark for surveying this state of affairs and sinking further and further into his depression. Things have been bleak. But I wish Mark could have held on.

I wish he could have held on for selfish reasons: few writers in this world brought the kind of joy and even astonishment to me that he did, through the breadth of his writing, his clarity, his fearlessness. But I also wish Mark could have held on because the nightmare of capitalist realism that he spent much of his life wrestling with is finally beginning to break.

We can see it wherever we look. Capitalist realism is beginning to break in the United Kingdom, where Jeremy Corbyn is on track to become the next prime minister. Mark saw this before his death: in her remembrance of Mark for the Los Angeles Review of Books, British writer Ellie Mae O’Hagan writes that the last time she saw Mark, she argued with him about Corbyn. She was pessimistic; he “was animated and full of hope; this was it, he thought, the left’s time was coming.”

Fittingly, at the Labour Party’s fringe festival The World Transformed last year, inspired by the book Mark was working on when he died called Acid Communism (the draft of which is included in K-Punk), organizers from the left-wing Labour activist group Momentum held an event that brought together Corbyn’s left political project with the joyful countercultural styles that Mark loved so much. They called it “Acid Corbynism.”

We can see capitalist realism beginning to break here in the United States, in the wild successes of Bernie Sanders and the explosion of the Democratic Socialists of America, in the warp-speed transformations of public consciousness around Medicare for All and free college for all and taxing the hell out of the rich.

Perhaps we can see it nowhere better than Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitter account, which she wields joyfully and savagely against any dumbass sap who dares oppose her bold left-wing political agenda by trotting out old capitalist-realist talking points.

I also have a feeling Mark would’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of the recent conservative freak-out over a video of AOC dancing in college. He liked using the word “libidinal” across contexts in his writing; he probably would’ve found plenty of libidinal energy in her ecstatic style of dancing and tweeting — as well as, perhaps, as a different kind of such energy in Fox News’ constant and obsessive coverage of her.

And he would have been heartened at the poetic justice of last week’s news: nearly four decades after their union, PATCO, was smashed by Ronald Reagan, symbolizing a new day of corporate union-busting and helping herald the destruction of social solidarities that Mark believed were so crucial for us to rebuild, air traffic controllers ground flights to a halt in one of the world’s major airports. Together with the threat of strikes by flight attendants, they forced Donald Trump to end the government shutdown. The very workers whose crushing defeat in 1981 seemed to herald the end of history proved to be today’s well-burrowed old mole, popping their heads up from underground just in time to save the world.

It’s impossible to look over the past four decades and see anything but the bleak landscapes of capitalist realism that Mark described. But it’s also impossible to look out over the world of 2019 and see capitalist realism marching onward, uncontested, smug and secure in its hegemony.

A better world isn’t certain. But one thing is clear: we are witnessing the beginning of the end of capitalist realism.

Mark helped us see that collective depression we have all lived in. I only wish he could have held on long enough to see that depression finally lift from the world. Perhaps it would have helped lift his own.