Questioning Capitalist Realism An interview with Mark Fisher

Mark Fisher is the author of ‘Capitalist Realism, is there no alternative’ out recently from Zer0 Books http://www.o-books.com/obookssite/book/detail/358/ As a blogger he writes K-Punk http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org/
Capitalist Realism is one of the most acute diagnoses of contemporary politics as it is played out in one small island off the coast of Europe. After skewering the marketisation of everything, the privatisation of stress, and the triumphalism of moronic bureaucracy as the guiding principles of governance, the book goes on to speculate about new forms of politics and culture. In doing so, it takes the reader through a lively argument about education, film, socialism and the compulsory stupidity of quality control mechanisms.

This interview, originally published on Mute News & Analysis following some of the themes from Capitalist Realism was carried out via email in the second week of December 2009.

Q (Matthew Fuller): One figure that you come up with that I think is particularly useful is the idea of a business ontology, something that crops up early and towards the end of the book. One can imagine that this is something that combines both the classical understanding of an ontology and the more technical description of the ordering of relations in a computing ontology, one is flattened into the other.

A (Mark Fisher): Well, I wasn’t thinking of anything too sophisticated with the idea of Business Ontology, and I’d certainly like to hear more about how the concept could be related to a computing ontology. Business Ontology as I understood it was simply the idea that everything is folded inside a business reality system, that the only goals and purposes which count are those that are translatable into business terms. The problem is that Business Ontology has no place for anything like ‘the public’. It’s time to reinvent the concept of the public; and also for workers in public services to start to drive out business interests and business methods. Up until the credit crisis, we bought the idea that business people somehow have a better handle on reality than the rest of us can muster. But, after the credit crisis, that’s no longer tenable. And as I say in the book, if businesses can’t be run as businesses, why should public services?

Q: Capitalist Realism is in your account extremely evident in education, which is a zone which is at once suffering immense restructuring from the introduction of pseudo-markets and the intense pressures of constant audit and competition; it is also a space which offers one of the last forms of refuge from the blunter stupidities of a traumatised and simplistically reduced range of opportunities and forms of life within contemporary capitalism, and as such is expected to absorb an immense amount of problems in society. Education no longer represses desires in a mode of high intolerance, but produces and incubates stupidities and ‘holds’ unsolvable problems?

A: Yes, there’s a way in which capitalist realism can only really be felt in areas – such as public service – which had previously been relatively free of business imperatives. Elsewhere, in many ways, capitalist realism is taken for granted! But the phrase ‘pseudo-marketization’ is crucial – what we have in public services is an absurd simulation of market mechanisms rather the market as such, a kind of worst of all worlds scenario in which a simulated market goes alongside continuing surveillance and monitoring from state bodies. (At the same time, it’s important not to demonise markets, or to let capitalism claim that it is equivalent to marketization. I take seriously Manuel DeLanda’s idea that capitalism is in fact an anti-market, and I think there’s a great deal of political potential in this kind of thinking.) If the market is supposed to deliver the best results all on its own, why do we still need inspection regimes, league tables etc? Neoliberal ideology likes us to believe that bureaucracy has decreased under it, but the reality is that it has simply changed form, and the average teacher or lecturer is doing much more bureaucracy than ever before – and this is not ‘necessary’ bureaucracy, or bureaucracy that ‘improves performance’; on the contrary, as we all know, it is a purely empty activity,a dead ritual that is at best useless, at worst actually counter-productive. What I mean by ‘capitalist realism’ is partly the imposition of these mechanisms – whose real significance might be to ensure ideological compliance at this ritualized level – and also the acceptance of those mechanisms by workers (and managers), who go along with them because ‘that’s just how things are now.’

Education is still often thought of as an ivory tower, even by teachers and lecturers. There were people at the FE college where I used to work whose partners worked in business who would make this claim – that we were somehow fortunate not to be in the dog-eat-dog world of business where people are sacked if their performance is not up to scratch. It was a laughable claim then; it’s even more manifestly absurd now after the bank bail outs, which have showed that it isn’t public services that are an ivory tower, but big business, where catastrophically bad performance, far from being punished, continues to be rewarded, and if people are sacked, they receive a handsome severance package.

But, far from being an ivory tower, education has been at the core of all of the social mutations of the last thirty years. With parents stressed and overworked, with the family disintegrating (even as it assumes a kind of hyper-normativity), education is increasingly required to take on socialisation and pastoral care tasks, and to contain and manage a kind of inchoate discontent that certainly isn’t being expressed in political terms. Post-16 education has been massively expanded, without a commensurate increase in resources, so lecturers now have to deal with more and more students who don’t really want to be doing academic study, but who are effectively forced into staying on at school. Teachers and lecturers find themselves in an impossible position, having to continually switch between the disciplinary role of authority figure and the consumer role of ‘providing a service’.

Q: In such conditions, what at one level is ‘understood’ as the imperatives of the market, characterised as free competition and choice between rational actors is translated into the terms of overloaded institutions, mediated by a state that provides a whole host of real more or less invisible hands, turns the conditions of understanding, shifted and disguised and irresolvable, into things which have to be solved by individuals, in turn driving them mad. What relations does knowledge have to illness under the conditions of capitalist realism?

A: The privatization of stress is central to capitalist realism. If they are ‘stressed’, workers in overloaded institutions are encouraged, not to complain about their workload, but to engage in the kind of performance auditing activities which contributed to their distress in the first place. The question is no longer, ‘how did work cause you to be unwell?’, but ‘what about you made you unable to do your job properly?’ An individual-therapeutic model of stress deflects any structural account of how the stress arose. This is reinforced by the psychiatric tendency to understand mental illness in terms of chemical imbalances in the brain, which, again, makes stress a purely private matter.
In terms of education, you will often have depressed lecturers on the one hand, facing depressed students on the other. In large part, this depression is a symptom of the failure of politics – discontent and disaffection have no outlet, so they are internalized, reinforcing the very conditions which gave rise to it in the first place. A particularly vicious kind of circle.

Q: Given this, how can we see the current moral panic about those young people ‘not in education, employment of training’?

A: Such individuals would seem to be outside the circuits of ‘control society’, yet it’s clear that structural unemployment has long been essential for late capitalism. At the same time, it’s also clear that many forms of ‘education, employment and training’ are just disguised forms of unemployment, means of indebting the young, and/ or keeping them off the official unemployment figures.

Q: An interesting sub-narrative in the book is in its tracing of the mutations and migrations of social, cultural, political and economic authority. At times it appears as something to be resisted, at other times to be inhabited or invented?

A: Well, what I think we have to do is think through the opposition between authority and authoritarianism. Much of the post-68 left has treated authority and authoritarianism as synonymous, but what we’ve got now, in many ways, is the dominance of a rampant bureaucratic authoritarianism alongside the disintegration of standard forms of authority. We shouldn’t be nostalgic for old forms of authority, any more than we should be nostalgic for old patterns of work. But it is clear that culture and politics can’t proceed without some kind of authority structure. I think Zizek’s arguments about the big Other being a necessary social fiction are very convincing. Moreover, neoliberalism’s assault on the big Other – ‘there is no such thing as society’ etc – have not eliminated the big Other so much as changed and disguised it. The big Other is now the one for whom bureaucracy and PR are completed. It’s time to think about a big Other, an authority and insitutional structure, that can engender egalitarian goals instead of undermining them.

Q: I suspect I see Zizek arguing for something like a protection racket here, and rather prefer Nietzsche’s observation that the death of God would be the one that caused humans maximum fear, caused by the possibility of self-recognition. To invent, God, Stalin or some other Other as a means of engendering a commonality is surely akin to the endless British cries for a renewal for the rather mouldy ‘Blitz Spirit’? Does the egalitarian always imply an almighty outside, or does it make itself at scales that may conjure up such things, but not depend on them?

Well, I’m not so interested in the political conclusions that Zizek draws from the argument about the big Other – partly because it is never particularly clear what they are, or how seriously we are supposed to take them. But what I would insist is correct is the idea that you can’t simply get rid of the big Other – the big Other is necessary in the sense that it is presupposed by and in any social group whatsoever. The Nietzsche reference is apposite here, but I think that the Lacanian critique of Nietzsche’s death of God thesis is absolutely fundamental: God persists precisely by being dead. In the same way, the fact that the big Other does not exist (at the level of empirical actuality) doesn’t stop it functioning as an effective virtuality: on the contrary, it is the empirical non-existence of the big Other which allows it to function. To directly assert the non-existence of the big Other puts one in the position of les non-dupes errant – the ‘fools’ who deny the existence of the symbolic fiction which structures reality. As I point out in the book, Gerald Ratner was someone who underestimated the power of the big Other – Ratner thought he could just say that his shops sold crappy jewellery and it would have no effect, because ’everyone knew’ that this was the case. But the big Other didn’t know, and the catastrophic results for Ratner’s business are well known. The capitalist big Other is the virtual entity that believes corporate advertising and PR when no empirical individual can.
But I think that the notion of ’symbolic fiction’ in excess of empirical reality, an Other that is not an actual individual, is something that the left should embrace, in part because it provides some alternative to the Thatcherite claim that ’there’s no such thing as society’. It could be argued that the failure of the left has consisted in its inability to depersonalise or ‘impersonalise’ the big Other – Marxism, Leninism, Stalinism, their very names indicate a continuing tendency to directly embody the big Other in an empirical individual. But the big Other doesn’t have to be a big Daddy. The left big Other would be whatever it was that public services are supposed to serve: not individuated ‘consumers’, but – to use an apparently archaic phrase – the ‘public interest‘. It’s what Rousseau meant by the ‘general will’ – not an aggregation of individual wills, but something that only exists at a certain level of abstraction. In order to function as an effective abstraction, though, it has to have certain institutional surrogates. It has to be remembered that we never encounter the big Other in itself, only its representatives. We need some sort of surrogates for the general will – agencies that will stand in for the collective interests. Perhaps repurposed trade unions could do that.
So, to state what ought to be obvious but isn’t (because of all sorts of beliefs in spontaneism etc) we need to take organisation and institutions seriously. In this respect, I would argue, certain strand of post-68 thought have been totally disastrous in their effects. The post-68, poststructuralist scepticism about insitutions and organisation operates as if Stalinism is still a clear and present danger, but this has just played into the hands of the right, who do take institutions and organisations seriously, even as they ‘officially’ excoriate them in the name of individual freedom and choice. The right dominates insitutions with its agenda because it doesn’t face any organised opposition that can impose a counter-narrative. Jodi Dean’s book, Democracy And Other Neoliberal Fantasies, is very good on the left’s retreat from organisation and its reluctance to impose any sort of determinate program. As Jodi argues, the right instrumentalise democratic openness in order to impose their program; but the left too often embraces openness as a value in itself. I think that it’s crucial that we refuse the idea that any kind of determinate political program is ‘oppressive’ and Stalinistic. It’s also imperative that we give up the idea that parties in the street are ‘political’. 68 might have felt good for the people involved forty years ago, but it was a political failure, and the left has to give up on the romance of failure and start to strategise again.

Q; Going back to an earlier set of points, the auditisation of public services such as education and health in the uk is something that has been set up under a Labour government, rhetorically composed of weird sediments of socialism and Christianity mixed in with other substances. The mode of governance shifts more and more to a rule of the statistically enforced average as a means of achieving what is proclaimed as equality, or even egalitarianism, but which is in effect a leveling by means of a compulsory mediocrity, which then of course blamed on those who ‘abuse’ the system or who parasite it. You call for a means of holding systemic failure accountable. Audit culture is intended to be such. It assumes failure and cheating on the behalf of all members of the population, tries to catch us out. What kind of systematic holding to account is possible?

A: I don’t think audit culture, or at least the audit culture I’m talking about, is intended to hold systemic failure accountable. On the contrary, it is itself a systemic failure which cannot be held accountable. The point is not only that it assumes failure and cheating, it actually engenders them. The audits I’m talking about – performance reviews etc – foreclose any question of the systemic by focusing on the individual.
As we all know, this kind of bureaucracy is not only useless, it’s actually a colossal waste of time: massive amounts of ‘data’ collected which has no conceivable positive impact on any of the practices it is supposed to surveill, in part because it will never be read by anyone. What we need is this whole system to be held to account by agencies that act in collective interests. In this respect, I think unions could be crucial. But only if they recalibrate their goals and tactics, and recognise that this is the terrain that they should be fighting over.
At a more global scale I think we need to imagine and invent regulatory agencies that can rein in capital. It seems impossible to imagine such agencies operating at the moment – but, since the bank crisis, it’s clear that it’s impossible for capitalism to carry on in the form that it has taken for the last thirty years. Everything is impossible now, including the so-called status quo.

Q: You suggest that strikes, in public services, are a self-defeating tactic. Certainly one can imagine ways of working through the marking system, occupations, refusal to work with audit, the opening up of the academy or patient support of medical services, the refusal to collect payments from citizens repositioned as ‘customers’ as alternate ways of working. One of those at the moment is the movement of refusal of staff in universities to collect attendance information for the Border Agency under the vile Points Based Immigration System. What do you see as other ‘productive’ forms of protest or political action that are effective or that might be tried out in present conditions and what might be the key means of evaluating them?

A: Strikes can work, but the one-day strike in particular strikes me as counter-productive. They alienate the public and impoverish the strikers, but cause the management very limited inconvenience (which in any case is often more than mitigated by the saving on wages). What we need are sustainable antagonisms in the workplace itself. We shouldn’t be petitioning managerialists, we should be demonstrating their irrelevance. At a time when workers, especially workers in public services, will come under increasing pressure, it’s time to come out and say the obvious: that it isn’t workers who are the unproductive parasites, but managerialists. It’s time to reverse the propaganda that’s been in place in the 70s. Then, the right used to argue, five public service workers would do the work of one. Now, five consultants do the work of none. We all know very well that many organisations could strip out layers of overpaid managers with no effect on the delivery of services at all. The ruling wisdom has it that to increase ‘efficiency’ you cut the number of workers; in fact, most organisations would be far more efficient if you cut the number of managers. The populist furore about bankers and MPs’ expenses suggests a change in mood, even in the mass media, which could be harnessed. A propaganda battle has to be aggressively fought. The party ought to be over for the managerialist parasites, but no-one gives up wealth and power voluntarily, they will have to be forced to relinquish it. At one level, it’s a simple matter of behaviourial psychology: middle managers and politicans impose the restoration agenda because they only have one lobby (the organised super-rich) leaning on them. It’s the path of least resistance. But if there is upward pressure from the bottom that will change the political ‘reality’.
To answer your question more specifically. It’s time to be more bold – teachers and lecturers should force a fight about the control of education. Why not have a total non-participation in inspection or auditing regimes? But such a campaign would of course require proper co-ordination, and that has to involve unions.
The university occupations are another positive trend, I think. Rather than the blustering and impotent ‘protests against capitalism’, these occupations have certain defined and determinate goals – reduce student fees – but those goals have much wider implications which could explode in all kinds of unpredictable ways.

Q: Another form of activity you propose is in accentuating cultural seriousness. You mention a number of examples, for instance the work of the TV documentary maker Adam Curtis. Curtis however falls into the too easy trap of identifying blogs with interpassivity. Your blog, K-Punk is another place in which you are pushing forward ideas about such seriousness in music and elsewhere. Bold, systematic thinking clearly exists in blog like your own. What other tendencies can you see promoting a substantial rivalry to capitalist realism?

A: If my blog is important, it’s not because it is some heroic lone voice, but because it is part of a network – a network that connects areas of cyberspace with sectors of the old media and educational instituions. Zer0 books, which put out Capitalist Realism and which I’m also involved with in an editorial role, is emerging as a key part of this ecology, putting out books by others in the network such as Owen Hatherley, Nina Power and Dominic Fox. What’s important about this network is that it constitutes a para-space, a space that doesn’t belong to the media, music criticism or the academy, but operates in the spaces between them. In some sense, this is a reconstitution of the kind of para-space that used to exist in Britain in art schools, the music press and in public service broadcasting. The cultural sensibility that I and others such as Simon Reynolds have called ‘hauntology’ is also part of the rivalry to capitalist realism, in part because it invokes the spectres of those old para-spaces. The Ghost Box record label, for instance, offers what I’ve called a re-dreaming of postwar British public space, offered not just as a nostalgic throwback, but as a call to rediscover all kinds of lost futures. Burial, without any doubt the musical artist of the decade in my view, produced two records which simultaneously registered the dejection that capitalist realism has produced, whilst also recalling the collective ecstasies that capitalist realism has eroded. The novels of David Peace, brilliantly adapted by Channel 4 this year, also operate as an alternative to capitalist realism – even as, in many ways, they are about the historical development of capitalist realism. Or rather, because of that.
But with the collapse of neoliberalism – and make no mistake about it, neoliberalism has collapsed, even though it continues to dominate political culture because of undead inertia – I expect to see capitalist realism under increasing pressure. A thirty year old reality system has just collapsed, and we’re in a kind of reality interregnum. It took a few years after the 1929 crash for new political forces to emerge, and just because nothing much has happened yet doesn’t mean it won’t ever happen. The terrain is strewn of ideological rubble, and it’s there to be fought over.