Monday, 20 February 2012

Capitalist realism in the twenty-first century

Last week I had the latest in a series of encounters with purportedly left-leaning individuals in which the summary of their points in relation to the current economic crisis and the government’s reactions more or less roughly boiled down to these points:

-the capitalist, free-market economy is the only foreseeable economic model which can and will now ever work effectively in this country, regardless of its faults. 
-Austerity measures are the only means we can impose to alleviate the effects of and reverse the current recession.
-Unions must be prepared to make concessions to help overcome the current economic crisis.
-No other forms of economic system exist or have existed to convince me that they are a viable alternative to capitalism.

Although opposing Conservative-led government strategies on the basis of cuts to key services such as healthcare, he believed cuts in other areas were vital to resolve the economic crisis. This came alongside the lack of an identifiably distinct ideological alternative to free-market capitalism. Why is it that despite knowledge of the many shortcomings of capitalism through living our day-to-day lives, the foremost being its cyclical boom-and-bust nature, many of us find ourselves acquiescing to the ubiquitous idea that it is our only option today? The results of January’s public poll on support for the Conservative party are a case in point. Despite rising unemployment, drastic marketization of key areas such as health and education and public spending cuts which have been employed to try stabilise the free-market economy their ratings have reached a 22 month high of 40%.

Despite the implementation of policies that are more than likely going to visibly make some impact negatively upon the quality of our lives, why do so many of us accept, albeit potentially grudgingly, this status quo? Is a system that is based upon a certain level of inequality to allow pursuit of individual profit really the best that we can now hope to achieve as Fukuyama alleged? Why are the proclamations of anti-capitalist groups, most recently the global Occupy movement, alongside the nationwide pensions and education protests, not to mention last summer’s riots, allowed to temporarily permeate into our lives through tv screens but denied permanent residence in our minds? 

Capitalist realism is a term resurrected by Mark Fisher in his book of the same title. In it, he argues that the idea of capitalism has grown to permeate every aspect of our lives to the extent that it has become accepted amongst a large proportion of people in Britain as a sort of natural fact. Its incredible hegemonic power can almost be quantified by its ability to continue to remain as a viable economic system despite its evident pitfalls which are highlighted frequently through the largely moral arguments of its opponents. Yes, capitalism allows the continued deaths of millions from easily treatable illnesses, allows them to starve and even impacts incessantly upon the lives of us in the prosperous ‘West’ but when its advocates shrug their shoulders and say “better the devil you know” there is no truly mass and sustained objection.

In Britain, the days of vehement belief in Keynesian economics are gone. The failings of Labour governments in the 1960s and 1970s to provide a convincing fa├žade of a compassionate capitalism have been cemented by New Labour’s continuation of a Conservative-imposed neoliberal agenda under the control of Blair and Brown.  The result of this in Britain, Fisher argues, is the growth in the public of a state of ‘reflexive impotence…they know things are bad, but more than that, they know they can’t do anything about it. The ‘knowledge’ of this is not just a passive observation of an already existing state of affairs but a self-fulfilling prophecy.’ Consider the recent protests surrounding the student fees hike. What created a huge reaction amongst students, leading to a 50,000 strong march and subsequent other mobilisations around the country has dissipated in the last year. The global Occupy movement, which was for a time embedded in endless headlines of news agencies around the world has been oddly silent since most of the camps disbanded.  Or what about the proposed NHS reforms, that despite drawing vast criticism have not translated into large, orchestrated outright protests? Fisher suggests that although we are constantly aware of opposition, it is our struggle to turn a reaction, i.e. protest, into anything more than that, i.e. the projection of a concrete ideological alternative to capitalism. Perhaps this is even best embodied by the riots of summer 2011, which although highlighted deep unrest, alienation and obvious disillusionment of young people over what our present society has to offer, when asked of their motives by the media lots found it hard to express how their economic reality corresponded to their feelings and subsequent outbursts.

This fragmentation of thought, which makes it hard for us to fully and meaningfully to firstly connect our negative experiences of capitalism in action in our present reality and secondly to how we feel (Fisher highlights the increasing rates of mental health issues such as depression that seem to be symptomatic of problems within our present economic system) is said to be representative of our position in a late capitalist society. Going further than Lacan’s breakdown of the signifying chain to illustrate how consumerism has a fragmenting effect upon subjective thought, Fisher suggests that the highly technology-based form of capitalism that we exist within today could have affected our capacity for constructive forms of concentration. Wired into ‘hypermediated consumer culture’, we are constantly surrounded by a ‘sensation-stimulus matrix’ that thrive on the notion of instantaneous access and constant availability. This wealth of new cultural information in itself is not something Fisher strikes out against. Rather, it’s the way that the notion of experiencing ‘true’ sense-stimulation has been radically reworked by companies to make consumers dependent on them and in return create profits. We’ve been encouraged to believe that we need to be provided with sense-stimulating products that rely more and more on notions of distraction rather than real, useful stimulation. Fisher suggests the effect of these repetitions by companies have worked to reduce our attention spans. Himself a teacher, he suggests that the burgeoning need to be ‘plugged in’ at all times is like an incessant addiction that means that the younger generations he teaches are now more likely to cast off something he is trying to teach them in school as “boring”. This, he says is due to their increasing estrangement in other parts of their lives from the understanding of proper time and devotion to a subject in order to gain the most from it, expecting instantaneity and ready-packaged entertainment. Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror episode, ‘15 million merits’, set in a dystopian future where citizens have become absorbed in a world of screens and whose only recognizable want for change is the individual accession to reality tv star status. The injustice of the system that is evident to the viewer is largely unrecognised, or in the case of the Liverpudlian female who repeatedly complains of the TV producers’ dismissal of her as unfair cannot easily be used to form a sustained objection to the present society she exists within. Introduced to the gaudy and deafeningly loud virtual world that they find themselves in front of without a break, their thought process seems to have been disrupted by an overload of sensory information, acting ironically to desensitise the population to the overarching misery the elusive authorities have doled out to them.

In much the same way Raymond Williams comments upon the blurring of the distinctions between the dominant, emergent and residual forms of culture, Fisher highlights how elites are keen to cash in on crises of ethics. Firstly, doing so creates an illusion of altruism on their part towards those not fortunate enough to share in the dazzling prizes of capitalist venture and thus sustain customer confidence in their goods. Secondly, superficial concern with issues such as global warming and poverty works enough to assuage themselves of any moral anxieties between themselves and the capitalist process by which they acquired their wealth. Fisher, drawing upon Zizek’s preoccupation with charity, which he sees instead of a limited distribution of wealth from the few to the many disadvantaged as a tool for actually strengthening the status quo, uses several examples to back up his claim. The promotion of Live8 by the likes of the super-rich of Bono and Richard Curtis and Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and co.’s ‘creative capitalism’ are amongst those highlighted. Through the harnessing of dominant culture through ‘emergent’ types, by which I mean ‘new meanings and values, new practices, new significances and experiences’ proponents of capitalism are able to transcend some of the explicit differences between ‘us and them’ and thus make it harder to observe upon first look the contradiction between their alleged want to alleviate the conditions of those less well-off and their actual hand in helping create or at least perpetuate the continuation of vast inequality in the world through capitalism. ‘Anti-capitalist capitalism’, as Zizek terms it, is used to create an illusion of unity sometimes even against things that can be more straightforwardly attributed to capitalism. Hollywood’s dabbling with environmental disaster movies is one example Fisher uses. This has effectively caused a decentralising effect: when we look to the opposing side for the malevolent other we don’t find anything there, instead we find what we thought it was when we glance around standing next to us on our side.

This attempt to create the image of responsible capitalists is part of a larger hegemonic process. Although we see attempts by elites to legitimate their actions through charity and the smokescreen of concern, we’re not blinded to the shortcomings of capitalism, which alongside its perceived altruistic side are highlighted again and again in the public realm by means of the media, protest and knowledge of everyday life. However, recent historical moments, encompassing most famously the crushing of union power from the seventies onwards, the construction of the ‘red menace’ and the growth of neo-liberal institutions like the EU, World Bank and IMF alongside the seemingly unstoppable rise of the financial sector in place of the industries that are talked of as being long in ‘decline’ has worked at least to instil a sense of impotency within our society. Governments that attempted to keep un-harnessed capitalism at arms length whilst promoting social democracy have given way to governments increasingly more and more accepting of neo-liberal measures due to the perhaps inevitable flirtation with a fluid force that they believed could somehow be easily at once curtailed from within the boundaries of state control whilst given freedom to create this imagined idea of profits for society at large rather than for certain individuals.

Our old forms of fighting against the injustices of the capitalist system do not work as well on their own in our present situation. Reliance on government channels to enact substantial reforms, that is if we elect a supposedly left-leaning alternative to the current Con-Dem arrangement, are likely to lead to disappointment. Those working in the interest of capital have enough power and resources at the moment to comply with government demands only to the extent it assures them further legitimation. Their threat of pulling the plug on connections with countries that wholesale rely on them in the twenty first century and relocating somewhere they are wanted is too worrying for the vast amount of politicians, especially now during the recession, who believe they at least need them for jobs and keeping state costs down to avoid more borrowing from neo-liberal institutions. The lack of overt voices at the moment from states that are unhappy with the capitalist system has furthered this want for reliance on the present system. It will take a lot to persuade people that it is beneficial to pursue more egalitarian economic systems due to the way governments are run to create visible change in the short term rather than long term change that could be taken credit for by another party.

The belief that capitalism can be in some way used for the good of the many holds strong because it has been allowed to become so hegemonic within our societies that to think of an alternative, for elected officials, is too giant, risky and hard a project to envisage when compared to just falling back on something that although not perfect is to a large extent accepted in at least some part, and although maybe grudgingly, by the majority of people.

Like Fisher in his book, I don’t have an exact theory for how we best go about enacting real change. I believe his considerations to be true in the sense that they have made the creation of sustained oppositional economic alternatives harder to galvanise proactive mass support for. A win for Labour in the next election does carry potential for encouraging change but only through highlighting the shortcomings in the policies they themselves enact, to try again to prove the limitations of acting within the parliamentary political system. At present, we should attempt to avoid the repetitions of the Eighties, when the Tories proved able to go after unions one by one by ensuring that we try build links of solidarity between different industries and to hope that the continued illustration of the unjust nature of capitalism, especially through workplace struggle that carries with it a more stable base of support, will at least keep a place in peoples’ minds. Real change I think is best ensured through revolutionary means, however whether the mood of our society will begin again to change to start to consider this is far from certain within our lifetimes. Yet, despite the vast power of capitalism, with the current crisis being arguably the deepest since the Second World War its future is by no means ensured for good. What we must try make sure is that we do not let ourselves slip either into total despondency and grudging acceptance of our current situation or give up the hard struggle of formulating strong alternatives in favour of the easier hope that capitalism will fall down of its own accord. We must continue to push through this period of seeming ideological oblivion through continued action to encourage the potential for change in the future, whether in our lives or only our descendents.