'Capitalist Realism' and the errors of academic Marxism

Since the death of Mark Fisher at the beginning of this year, there has been a small increase in appetite for his book Capitalist Realism: is there no alternative? This is unfortunate, as the book is a confused jumble of academic jargon which barely manages to describe a phenomenon first explained by Marx over 170 years ago, let alone offer any practical advice to socialists trying to change the world today.

A poor imitation of Marx

The central idea of the book is that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. By this Fisher means that through the media, educational institutions, and every other means at their disposal, the ruling class promotes its ideology of individualism, competition, and profit-seeking throughout society.

Marx explained exactly the same thing back in 1845 in the German Ideology, stating that:

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas; i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force”.

It seems that Fisher has placed himself in that academic tradition that bases itself entirely on re-packaging ideas developed by superior intellects decades ago and delivering them in a less understandable form.

It’s easy to imagine the end of capitalism

What is particularly astonishing is that Fisher made this statement - that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism- in 2009, in the immediate aftermath of the epoch-defining, worldwide crisis of capitalism. In the heat of that economic collapse, when banks failed and mainstream economics was shown to be bankrupt in every sense of the word, people were more open to ideas promoting an alternative to capitalism than they had been for decades.

Fisher says that the fact that the banks were bailed out in 2008 without provoking immediate riots and revolutions around the world is proof that everyone in society has been irretrievably won over to capitalist ideology. This is the argument of a man who has never studied or understood class consciousness, class struggle, or the revolutionary process.

Womens march in America Image own workWomens march in America 2017 / Image: own work

Contrary to what liberal academics like Fisher believe, consciousness is a very conservative thing. Most people don’t go looking for radical upheavals and dramatic changes in their lives at every possible opportunity. People look for the path of least resistance, and will only enter onto a more arduous path when no other is available to them.

So, when the crisis hit in 2008, most people were willing to believe that those in charge had everything under control, because that’s what was being said. And the majority of people were even willing to tighten their belts and accept some austerity because, they were told, that way everything would be back to normal soon enough. And in most countries, these lies and mistakes were actively promoted by those who were supposed to be the representatives of the working class, like the leaders of the Labour Party in Britain, thus stalling and holding back the development of radical consciousness even further.

History shows us that consciousness takes time to catch up with events. Poverty, starvation, and repression existed for many years in Tsarist Russia before 1917. Even the imperialist slaughter of the First World War was played out for two and a half years before the Russian masses moved to seize power and put an end to it. To throw in the towel and write a book about how capitalism has won the ideological battle because the mass of people didn’t immediately take to the streets in 2008 is short-sighted in the extreme.

Crisis and radicalisation

Part of the problem is that Fisher himself doesn’t really understand the 2008 crisis. He describes it as “the credit crisis of 2008”, when in fact it was and continues to be a crisis of overproduction. In other words, this crisis was not caused by poorly regulated lending, but by a fundamental contradiction built into the foundations of the capitalist economy.

This meant that, as Marxists explained at the time, the crisis of 2008 would not be easily solved and austerity would not be a short-lived phenomenon. In fact, the bailing out of the banks, lamented by Fisher as evidence of capitalism’s ideological victory, was an admission of a fundamental failing of capitalism. The market economy required these banks to go bust, but the social consequences of so many lost savings would have been catastrophic for the ruling class. So, the banks, and the rest of the economy, had to be rescued, at the expense of the long-term health of the economy in terms of public debts, productivity, and investment.

OccupyWallstreet Brooklyn brigsOccupy Wall Street / Image: own work

The ensuing multiple failed attempts - which have continued for almost a decade now - to restore the economic equilibrium have led to a huge disruption of the social and political equilibrium. As more and more people have come to realise that the path of least resistance is not really a path at all, they have begun to look for other ways forward. This is how radical consciousness develops. People learn through their own experience.

Occupy Wall St began in 2011 and spread around the world calling for an end to the capitalist system. Mass movements swept the Arab world in 2011 putting an end to regimes that had existed for decades, to which no-one had dared imagine an alternative was possible. Political polarisation, the rise of new parties, and the death of old ones, has shattered the cosy centre-ground consensus in country after country around the world. Even in the USA Bernie Sanders rallied millions to his slogans for democratic socialism and a political revolution.

All of this is a direct consequence of the crisis of capitalism and was predicted, in its general outlines, by genuine Marxists. Fisher, on the other hand, who failed to really understand the crisis and who does not understand how consciousness develops, has seen his 2009 statement that “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”, decisively disproved by millions of people.

An incorrect method

It is a common theme throughout Capitalist Realism that Fisher makes statements that have been utterly discredited by events that have happened since the publication of the book.

For example, he writes: “By contrast with their forebears in the 1960s and 1970s, British students today appear to be politically disengaged.It is sufficient to point to the large student demonstrations and the wave of university occupations that shook the coalition government in 2010, and to the enormous support for Corbyn among students in the 2017 general election (which was enough to swing seats like Canterbury away from the Tories for the first time in 100 years), to see the error in this statement.

Fisher cannot be criticised for failing to predict this or that particular event – none of us has a crystal ball. But it is his method that is entirely wrong. He bases himself on an impressionistic appraisal of what’s going on in society. He cannot see beneath the surface of society to understand the underlying processes taking place.

The reason why Fisher cannot penetrate beyond a superficial analysis of society is that he doesn’t accept that most basic Marxist idea: that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle”. In fact, in his book Fisher goes so far as to deny the class struggle entirely. He writes:

“Antagonism is not now located externally, in the face-off between class blocs, but internally, in the psychology of the worker, who, as a worker, is interested in old-style class conflict, but, as someone with a pension fund, is also interested in maximizing the yield from his or her investments.”

In other words, society is reduced to the schizophrenic internal battle of each individual, rather than being based on class divisions.

Moreover, the point about pensions blurring the lines between workers and capitalists is fundamentally false - as if pensions are not themselves a reflection of class contradictions. Indeed, it is clear for Marxists that pensions are merely deferred wages, and the struggle to defend pensions has become a key battleground in the class struggle for that very reason. Moreover, the ‘yield from investments’ is also dependent on the health of the capitalist system, the very thing that is in deep crisis today. Consequently, those workers who are interested in ‘maximising their yield’ are being further radicalised by the capitalist system’s crisis-ridden nature. The inability for capitalism to afford these pensions is in fact a source of profound instability for the system and tends to provoke class struggle.

It’s no wonder that Fisher can’t understand working class consciousness or predict mass movements if his starting point is to obscure the question of pensions in the class struggle.

Scientific socialism

Marxists define class in a scientific way, in terms of relations to the means of production. Those who are able to live off the labour of others, by virtue of owning a factory, a business, or land, are bourgeois - the capitalist class. Those, on the other hand, whose only way of survival is to sell their labour power to others are proletarian - the working class. This scientific understanding is the basis for understanding the class struggle, as a battle between proletarians and bourgeois for a greater share of the wealth produced in the economy.

When there’s a crisis, each side will try to make the other pay for it. The bourgeois will try to sack workers and reduce pay in order to cut costs. Meanwhile the proletariat tends towards collective action, withdrawing their labour and demonstrating in numbers in order to prove to the bourgeois that without them the economy won’t operate, thus forcing concessions such as higher wages and better conditions.

marx eng5Marx and Engels / Image: public domain

The dozens of general strikes in Greece to resist EU austerity; the mass movement against the Labour Law reforms in France; the movement against the Spanish government around the Catalan referendum; the general strikes in Brazil; ever-increasing strike action in China: all of these and many more are concrete examples of class struggles that have taken place since Fisher wrote his book. And all of these exist in the real world, not just in the psychology of individual workers. It is Marx’s ideas, not Fisher’s, that really offer any explanation as to what is going on in the world today.

Which way forward?

It is these fundamental mistakes of method and theory that leave Fisher without any real solution to the problem he has identified (172 years after Marx). The whole book is peppered with meaningless postmodern academic gobbledygook. But it’s when he’s proposing a way forward in the fight against capitalism, that Fisher descends most completely into incomprehensible drivel:

“To reclaim a real political agency means first of all accepting our insertion at the level of desire in the remorseless meat-grinder of Capital. What is being disavowed in the abjection of evil and ignorance onto fantasmatic Others is our own complicity in planetary networks of oppression. What needs to be kept in mind is both that capitalism is a hyper-abstract impersonal structure and that it would be nothing without our co-operation.”

And further on:

“What must be discovered is a way out of the motivation / demotivation binary, so that disidentification from the control program registers as something other than dejected apathy.”

The only thing that such statements seem to be saying (as far as they are saying anything at all) is that we simply have to think differently, and then everything will be alright.

Unfortunately, this isn’t much of a practical proposal for someone whose housing benefit has been frozen for yet another year, or someone struggling to earn enough to keep their head above water. It’s the proposal of a well-paid academic, disconnected from the realities of working class life.

marx engelsMarx and Engels / Image: public domain

Fisher says that one of the left's vices is its endless rehearsal of historical debates, its tendency to keep going over Kronstadt or the New Economic Policy rather than planning and organizing for a future that it really believes in.”

In a certain sense, Fisher is right here; as Lenin said, “theory without action is sterile”, and we cannot allow ourselves to be side-tracked by interesting historical discussions simply for their own sake. We are not academics, but revolutionaries.

But that particular quote from Lenin continues: “action without theory is blind”. And it is this side of the equation that is Fisher’s downfall.

If, when considering how best to fight capitalism, he had taken a serious approach to Marxist theory, including questions of the State (as brought out by the issue of Kronstadt) and the balance of class forces on a global scale (as illuminated by the New Economic Policy), then he might have been able to suggest something practical for anti-capitalists to do going forward. As it is, this book offers the modern revolutionary nothing but confusion and frustration.

If you want genuinely revolutionary socialist ideas, stick to Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky.