Capitalist Realism and Public Intellectualism

Although a few books, numerous essays, an art movement, a literary tradition, and an ideology have all been given the title “Capitalist Realism,” it is likely that what first springs to mind when a cultural studies scholar hears those two words is a small book published in 2009.1 More than six years since its publication, that book, with the long title Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, remains a lively, engaging, and valuable critique of neoliberal hegemony, a book that, as Dwight MacDonald wrote of some British journalists’ work, treats its “readers like equals,” and offers a persuasive indictment of managerialism in the “post-Fordist” era, which is to say in our global society since “October 6, 1979.”2

As this volume reminds us, it was on that day, some thirty-six years ago, that “the Federal Reserve increased interest rates by 20 points,” and so prepared “the way for the ‘supply-side economics’ that would constitute the ‘economic reality’ in which we are now enmeshed.”3 Indeed, this event was significant—“the most widely discussed and visible macroeconomic event of the last 50 years of U.S. history,” according to one economic analysis.4 But unlike the many economists who celebrate Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker’s decision to restrict monetary supply in an attempt to staunch inflation, and contra the multitude who continue to regard Volcker’s disinflation strategy as a salutary lesson in achieving macroeconomic stability—in avoiding a major recession—here, in this book, we receive a completely different impression of the event. Capitalism Realism makes the remarkable contention that Volcker’s decision was a broad mistake of economic governance—a fateful decision with far-reaching social consequences for workers, who thenceforward faced only the grim prospect of “a new ‘flexibility,'” one defined by the broad “deregulation of Capital and labor.”5

Before going any further, I will finally note that the book’s author was the writer and theorist Mark Fisher, who died last week, on the 13th of January, at the young age of 48 years old.6 While many have remarked on Fisher’s book—and indeed, commiserated the author’s passing—my own appreciation for Fisher’s writing, both in Capitalist Realism and elsewhere, stems from my admiration for his attempt to avow and to formalise a singular, powerful proposition: that, for a great many who are “enmeshed” in it, post-Fordist capitalism entails brutal psychic consequences. In this historical context, Fisher acknowledges, schizophrenia marks an ontological border—a “limit concept,” a phantomic outer-edge; but the psychotic disorder is also, he writes (after Lacan), a “‘suggestive aesthetic model’ for understanding the fragmenting of subjectivity in the face of the emerging entertainment-industrial complex.”7 But if schizophrenia “marks the outer edges of capitalism,” then “bi-polar disorder,” he adds, “is the mental illness proper to the ‘interior’ of capitalism,” so allegorically synchronised, so correlative, are the economy’s “boom and bust cycles” to the “moods of populations” within the system.8

Among the many thinkers who people the author index on the Zero Books website, Fisher certainly seems one of those most suited to the Hampshire publisher’s stated aims, one of the most in harmony with its philosophy. (As one of the imprint’s commissioning editors, this is perhaps no surprise.) An imprint of John Hunt Publishing based in Ropley, East Hampshire, Zero Books (sometimes written as “Zer0 Books” or “0-books”) stands for, as it notes on its website, the production of a more disruptive, a more incisive form of writing than that which currently passes for intellectual work:

Contemporary culture has eliminated the concept and public figure of the intellectual. A cretinous anti-intellectualism presides, cheerled by hacks in the pay of multinational corporations who reassure their bored readers that there is no need to rouse themselves from their stupor.

This disillusioned view, with its eulogy for the public intellectual’s disappearance, is, of course, nothing less than accurate. For better or for worse (as, depending on how one defines them, what ramifies from the loss of the public intellectual remains unclear) the dominant media outlets seem no longer interested in according kudos, in showing any earnest deference to—and perhaps can no longer really even comprehend—those figures who had once been called (and who, lamentably, are sometimes still called) “Men of Letters.”9 “In the age of late or neoliberal capitalism,” write Jeffrey R. Di Leo and Peter Hitchcock, “society at large no longer affords its iconic or star public intellectuals much respect.”10 They are instead “widely regarded as merely representatives of ‘one side of the argument,'” their views subject to sensationalism and reductionism, whichever “side” they may happen to find themselves on (“liberal or conservative, left wing or right wing”). Unlike what may have once been the case, the public intellectual today is no more permitted to hold a finessed, conditional, qualified, or partial view, no more authorised to occupy a “rational middle ground,” than any other vendor in the ideas marketplace.11

If in the first half of the twentieth century, the exemplary public intellectual might have manifested in the form of someone like Aldous Huxley, a regular interviewee on BBC television before his 1963 death, another exemplar may have been Bertrand Russell, the talented mathematician–philosopher who routinely appeared on BBC broadcasts including The Brains Trust, and who just as often authored newspaper articles published in what we would today call the mainstream press. What soon becomes obvious, however, no matter to whom you point, is that public intellectualism in the early twentieth century was a man’s business—a boy’s club. But in addition to being men, and as well as possessing the requisite academic bona fides (although Huxley, holding only an undergraduate degree, drew his intellectual authority less from the institution than from his grandfather’s reputation), Huxley and Russell were also typical of the “writers and thinkers who,” as Russell Jacoby wrote in 1987 (in a book on American, not British, intellectuals), “address a general and educated audience” and “whose works are [not] too technical or difficult to engage a public.”12

In the later twentieth century, however, perhaps in the wake of Simone de Beauvoir’s “Femmes de lettres,” and (later) Hélène Cixous’s L’ecriture feminine, among many other feminist schools and currents, public intellectualism, losing some but by no means very much of its phallocentric bias, tapered its ongoing resistance to the image of the woman academic—or, at least, disavowed it long enough to accord some recognition to the forceful erudition of such women intellectuals as Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag, Germaine Greer, Camille Paglia, Martha Nussbaum, Judith Butler, Naomi Wolf, among many others.13

But no sooner had the longstanding exclusion of women from the intellectual public forum begun, in part, to abate (though, as Jeffrey Di Leo points out, “only 17 percent of professional philosopher are women”14) than “immediation”—the “cultural logic of the new public intellectual”—began to reconfigure the nature of the public performance.15 Rather derisive, Richard A. Posner identifies what might be advantageous for a public intellectual in this immediated context, namely “name recognition” and a nimble enunciative style:

Many public intellectuals are academics of modest distinction fortuitously thrust into the limelight, acquiring by virtue of that accident sufficient name recognition to become sought-after commentators on current events. Some of them are what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls le Fast Talker.16

But it is perhaps the very speed of capital circulation, the pace of the “entertainment-industrial complex” and the depth of immediation, that has conjured into life this “fast-talking” incarnation of the public intellectual. Indeed, as Hitchcock notes, the “velocity” of capitalism “affects the logic of intellectual production and exchange.” And, of course, something of this velocity is also immanent in, and is in fact constitutively a part of, not only what Fisher’s Capitalist Realism mourns but what it represents.

Even if Fisher was not himself one of Bourdieu’s le Fast Talkers, it remains true that his writing, swift and piquant, exudes a combustible intellectual energy. As one one reviewer of Capitalist Realism commented,

Fisher’s style of exposition has a fast-paced, free-wheeling quality to it reminiscent of Slavoj Žižek’s writing—and, indeed, there is a Žižekian audaciousness to many of the ideas that Fisher puts forward.17

On the back of its dust jacket, Steven Shaviro is quoted as describing Fisher as a “master cultural diagnostician,” a writer highly skilled in surveying “the symptoms of our current cultural malaise.” It is not by accident that Shaviro uses a grammar borrowed from psychiatry and medicine, Fisher being so clearly a disciple of the critical-psychiatry set, of the “radical theory and politics” of “Laing, Foucault, [and] Deleuze and Guattari.”18

However, what is perhaps most clearly apparent about Fisher’s writing, in ways sometimes quite distinct from those other authors’ works, is the extent to which it yearns so urgently for genuine political change; it is less interested in proposing a new theory of the political system, or in adumbrating a tantalising speculation about the future, than it is committed to proposing reform. After adverting to the work of the critical psychiatrists, Fisher’s tone becomes abruptly more pragmatic: “But what is needed now,” he writes, “is a politicization of much more common disorders. Indeed, it is their very commonness which is the issue: in Britain, depression is now the condition that is most treated by the NHS.”19 Fisher’s scholarly episteme might be described as a kind of “no-nonsense” political sociology, an unpretentious style of public intellectualism. His was an earnest yet unidealised approach to the work of political theory—one to which we should all aspire, now more than ever.