A decade after the publication of Mark Fisher’s magnum opus, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, it’s still easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased hunger, homelessness and personal debt in the United States (on top of a death toll of more than 330,000 people and counting), but during a crisis that calls for imagination and experimentation from our elected officials, we’ve been told time and time again that, at a fundamental level, “there is no alternative” that’ll give people sufficient, lasting relief.
And the pandemic hasn’t just been materially devastating. We’ve settled into a malaise of precarity and horizonlessness — to quote Fisher, it feels like we’re slogging through “the slow cancellation of the future,” a brutal “deflation of expectations” that sinks inversely to our warming planet. All the while, capitalist relations press on, delivering big profits for billionaires and life-threatening conditions for frontline workers.
Capitalist Realism concludes with Fisher calling for a “new political subject,” a process of reimagining how we can collectively resist capitalist ideology and orient ourselves toward a liberated future. Before Fisher took his own life in January 2017, he began theorizing this new political subjectivity in a graduate course at Goldsmiths, University of London that he named “Postcapitalist Desire.”
Repeater Books’ recent publication of Postcapitalist Desire: The Final Lectures — which compiles transcripts from Fisher’s five Fall 2016 lectures — sheds some light on his nascent vision of “a world which could be free.” Although it’s a tragically incomplete text, Fisher plants provocative seeds that warrant further exploration by leftists in our pursuit of political and cultural power. In other words, Postcapitalist Desire is a challenging, worthwhile read, a guiding light to new horizons during an ostensibly horizonless moment.
I can’t do justice to the way Fisher effortlessly weaves theory, cultural criticism and classroom debate into these lectures, but I want to briefly summarize a few of his key arguments that could inform our own thinking and organizing.
Much like the late anarchist anthropologist David Graeber, Fisher views labor as a source of “surplus repression” — we’re technologically capable of living “a life with far less work,” but the capitalist class needs us to keep working in order to maintain their domination and perpetuate “the illusion of the impossibility of freedom for human beings.”
Fisher draws from Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse and cultural critic Ellen Willis to explore the conditions that fueled the 1960s counterculture, an era when young people attempted a “social and psychic revolution” and experimented with new ways of living. He wonders if we can regain that orientation toward liberation today, and if it’s possible to sustain these liberatory experiments and make them more accessible.
He poses the following question as the foundation of this analysis: “What are the actual necessities now that put limits on human freedom?”
Fisher engages with Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács to examine how we perceive immediacy and totality in modern capitalist society. In our everyday, “immediate” reality, most people understand capitalism’s social hierarchies and scarcities as fixed, natural and “reified” aspects of our lives. They can start to develop class consciousness when “you see the way things are talked about by the dominant group, and you see the reality of your life, and you see they don’t match up.” These contradictions help us piece together the “totality” of how capitalism functions and how it structures our social relationships.
Fisher connects these concepts to “consciousness-raising” tactics pioneered by feminists in the late ’60s. Feminist consciousness-raising groups made space for women to talk openly about their common problems and realize that “it’s not me, it’s patriarchy.” When we work to collectively resist patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism and other forms of subordination, consciousness-raising tactics can help members of subordinated groups see past the repression of their immediate reality and use their view of the space-and-time dimensioned totality as “the basis for agency.”
In addition to reframing popular narratives about the ’60s counterculture, Fisher, citing the work of historian Jefferson Cowie, describes a new vision of “intersectional class politics” that emerged during the early ’70s. He discusses standpoint theory — the notion that members of subordinated groups “get a true picture by virtue of being subordinated” — and he explains how social movements during this period linked racial and gender-based oppressions with class struggle, creating the potential for a “transformative group consciousness.”
These movements were eventually crushed and co-opted by the capitalist class later in the decade as the neoliberal era took hold. But Fisher wants us to critically interrogate the historical conditions that led to this revolutionary potential, as well as its dissolution. What if this mode of intersectional class politics had sustained itself beyond the ’70s and brought forth mass demands to change how we live and work? What can we learn from these radical political and countercultural movements, and how might we rekindle them and make them more durable? Fisher argues that this brief period, from the late ’60s to the early ’70s, marked “a potential route into postcapitalism” that can inspire and inform today’s struggles to build a better world.
“There was some sense that you could have organized labour and countercultural libido together, for a moment,” Fisher says. “The postcapitalist desire is a sustaining of that interlinking, that articulation.”