in conversation with Michael Schapira
Full Stop travels to the U.K. and the world of politics today to speak with blogger, teacher and author Mark Fisher about the mordant pleasures of cultural critique. Fisher has been running his blog, k-punk, since 2003, where he writes about politics, philosophy, literature, music, and cybernetics. In his recent book, Capitalist Realism, Fisher explores “some of the affective, psychological and political consequences of the deeply entrenched belief that there is no alternative to capitalism.” And what’s more, he’s a man of discerning taste, as evidenced by the fact that he made a point of finding time during his first trip to New York City to head out to Coney Island and pick up a Warriors shirt for his young child. Pay attention to one of the more insightful voices out there today!
Can you describe in broad strokes where Capitalist Realism came from?
There were a number of threads running through my blog, and one of them had to do with politics. Not politics in some distant sense, but politics particularly in relation to my working life, which through a lot of the early years of the blog was as a lecturer in philosophy and religious studies at a further education college. (Ed. note: a further education college is similar to a community college in the U.S., but most students would be 16 to 19 years old.)
One of the stories that came into the blog a bit and sits behind Capitalist Realism is the story of recovery from depression, which was a large trajectory of my life in that last decade. Having done a doctorate in philosophy and literature, I was mentally destroyed in lots of ways and felt pretty useless and unemployable. Very burnt out, I found it very difficult to read any serious work. It was teaching and blogging that actually rehabilitated me. Teaching sort of re-engaged me in the world. When you are doing postgraduate research you can feel very disconnected from the world and your work can feel very pointless. But with teenagers you really have to front up because they won’t let you get away with much nonsense; they will interrupt you every 90 seconds, etc. It was difficult, but it was also an excellent grounding and initiation back into the world.
Alongside that I started blogging. Blogging was a bit like when Zizek says that you can’t sit down and think that you’re going to write a book. You have to think that you’re just going to write a few paragraphs, and then the paragraphs will build up and build up and suddenly a book forms. In the same way, blogging for me started off as not being that serious. The dead heavy weight of scholarly responsibility can interject and cause you think that you can’t possibly write on anything unless you looked at every possible source, which is of course impossible, but nevertheless you still feel the guilt and weight that goes along with that. The blog didn’t really have that. It was just a different space. I didn’t have that weight and responsibility and maybe I could just try out some ideas.
Your rehabilitation from depression seemed to be coextensive with a growing realization of the problems racking higher education and public services in the wake of New Labour. Can you describe the political context of your book a bit for American readers?
What I started to notice very strongly in my working life were the changes that had happened over this period. In lots of ways, Capitalist Realism is really a study of what it was like to work in public services under Blairism and New Labour. We could assume that the neoliberal right would push the interests of business, but we couldn’t necessarily assume that a notionally left-wing party would be doing this as well. There is a certain novelty about that, or rather we take it for granted now, but we ought not to in lots of ways.
What I was experiencing firsthand under New Labour was the imposition of a whole battery of new measures, particularly to do with self-surveillance. For example, [as teachers] we had to fill in 50-60 page long logbooks with “strategies for improvement,” bullet pointed, etc. The year in which I was made redundant, we were required to fill in “Active Schemes of Work.” No one really knew what this meant. This is kind of the Kafkaesque nightmare of these things. Everyone is second-guessing what they think the bureaucratic authorities might want to see. The bureaucratic authorities themselves, when they emerge – these would typically be the Inspectorate, employed by the government to come and check up on colleges – wouldn’t necessarily know either what exactly was required. These people were always interpreting this set of bureaucratic criteria that are slightly Talmudic. It would be one thing to have a set of clear and determinate demands that you could meet. But it is another thing to have this vague legalese, which is capable of multiple interpretations, and which is also guaranteed to maximize the anxiety of everyone who is involved.
It was really the encounter with these kinds of procedures that was one of the main starting points for the work that went into Capitalist Realism. Beginning in a raging exasperation, in writing the book I was able to see these kinds of things as systemic as opposed to just affecting me.
One piece of your analysis has been called into question by a wave of recent student protests in the U.K. In the book you describe British students as suffering from a “reflexive impotence,” by which you mean that their own perception of political marginalization fuels their actual depoliticization as a group. How have the student protests made you rethink this?
I really do think that that part of the book is somewhat out of date. I’m sure it still applies to many of students in the U.K., but it was dramatic and exciting to see those protests. A lot of what I talked about in the book was just encounters with students and their widespread sense of hopelessness that one could see. It seemed to me, on an anecdotal level, that you’ve got around fifty percent of students who are statemented with some kind of learning difficulty, often involving attention deficit through to people with serious affective disorders and depression. Depression is a very common problem amongst youths in the U.K. This is something that I try and stress in the book and ask “hold on, why, why do we accept this?” This in and of itself should be a political point, but once again it’s been successfully depoliticized as part of the agenda of saying, “don’t look for social causes for this kind of thing. It’s neurochemistry… or it’s the parents.” Given all that, there are n number of reasons why the young in Britain would feel incapable of acting, would feel that they lacked any kind of political agency, which is why it has been so great to see this emerge in so widespread a way in the months before Christmas. This is exactly what I’d been hoping for, to see this sense of hopelessness breaking down.
In addition to this rebirth in student activism, we have also seen a resurgence in theory on the left in recent years (seen, for example, in conferences like The Idea of Communism). Do you see these two phenomena as interrelated?
One thing that we can learn from neoliberals is the importance of theory. Neoliberalism didn’t spontaneously emerge, though it has artfully made it appear as if that was the case. There was the deliberate program in place – I think you can follow Naomi Klein’s analysis of this – that was opportunistic. Whenever things fell apart, they could helicopter in this set of ideological propositions readymade. I think that we on the left are not in a position to do that at the moment because we don’t fully know what we want, we don’t fully know what the program is. I think that we have to take the time out to develop that. Which isn’t to say that we should step out of any kind of activism of the moment.
But we just do need theoretical narratives, which are what is lacking. For example, there is gestural socialism at the moment, but what form that would actually take in the 21st century we don’t really know in detail or even quite vaguely. That’s not a reason to despair, but it is a motive to theoretically act at this time. But I do think the two things do work together. When I wrote this book I didn’t think it would have a political impact. I thought it was a work of cultural analysis that involved reference to politics, but I didn’t expect it to affect anything. That already feels different, because of the changing atmosphere. As theorists we should try and develop confidence that our ideas can actually go somewhere.
Do you see the university as being an essential site for where theory is going to have meaningful uptake?
I think a lot of different things about university. One line might be that there is no hope for them, in the sense that they are neoliberalized institutions. I know a lot of colleagues who strongly think that this is the case and we should be looking beyond universities now, in a way that you give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and Caesar has very definitely seized the university. I don’t necessarily think we should do that.
In a sense, why universities and the education system had any sort of egalitarian element in the first place was from pressure put on them from outside of the university system itself. In the U.K. any of the organs of the social democracy or institutions of the welfare state were not achieved as goals in themselves, but were the result of pressures from an active left. As that pressure has receded, forces of business have been able to take more and more control over the university. I think that somehow we again have to exert pressure from outside of universities to get universities to change back. Pressures within universities themselves won’t be enough to do it.
But that being said, higher education is in a major phase of transition in the U.K. and who knows where it is going. We don’t even know how many of the universities that currently exist will exist for much longer. What I can say is that I hope it continues to be a site of struggle, which it was before Christmas. We’ve seen the story go one way, which is more and more hold of business over education. I’m hoping we are seeing a counter-trend starting to emerge.
Can you say more about the character of the business interests that are being resisted here?
Part of the strangeness of the current policy of the U.K. government is that it is attacking universities and the arts as if they were this drain on the economy that we really can’t afford this anymore. It’s just economically false. The universities are quite successful investments for the U.K., same as with the arts. I think the figure is that for every pound that is spent on the arts counsel, two pounds come back into the economy. Even in their own terms of business, or apparent terms of business as we see, this agenda is not just about economic viability or economic success. It is about ideology. There is something threatening about philosophy, the humanities, and increasingly threatening I think in a world that requires a kind of supine submission to the ruling ideas. Those subjects produce and require a kind of critical reflection, which gives a good reason as to why they want to close them down.
What’s surprising in the U.K. at the moment is how naked they are about it, and that they can get away with it. One of the points of the book is to show how they are getting away with it. In their terms, what does realism mean? It means “hard economics,” but that itself is ludicrous because one can see that there isn’t anything hard about the leading edge of capitalism. Finance capitalism surely has more in common with conceptual art than it does with the manufacturing of goods. Their idea is somehow that finance and business is the real world that is solid and concrete, and that art and philosophy are nebulous, is especially dubious at this moment. After the economic meltdown of 2008 this is demonstrably false.
Kafka emerges as a key figure in unmasking the effects of this “business ontology.” Can you describe a bit how he figures into your book?
I’ve always thought that Kafka is best understood as a comedy of everyday institutions. The mistake people make about Kafka is reading him in terms of totalitarianism, in the sense of a very clear set of demands that are made on people. This is not what we see in Kafka. What we see instead is this endless, Talmudic anxiety about what it is that is required. What is it that the Castle wants? What can K do in order to satisfy the demands of the lowest level officials in the Castle, which can only be speculated upon? They themselves are only in turn similarly speculating on what higher ups might want. This structure of disavowed anxiety, it seems to me, is what Kafka is about and this is what we are living. It’s not about the Hapsburg Empire, or rather, it may have been about that but it’s equally about economic life as we endure it. Anyone who has ever dealt with a call center knows everything about Kafka whether they realize they do or not.
These points of analysis are oftentimes actually quite funny. Is there one that stands out as an especially artful piece of absurdity?
A good example of this came from filling in these logbooks when I was teaching. We’d filled in these logbooks and the manager says “Yeah boys, it’s all very well this, but you just haven’t criticized yourselves enough.” We said, “Yeah, okay, we’ll note down more criticisms for the logbook.” And then he says, “Yeah, of course it doesn’t matter, nothing will happen.” And that’s somehow supposed to make things better as we are engaging in this kind of business Maoism. But it’s business Maoism plus Stalinism. What’s Stalinist about it is that it’s all about the paperwork, the paper world, and not about any sort of reality or fact.
What are you working on now?
It gives me no pleasure — aside from a slight, mordant pleasure — to say that because of the conditions described in the book I’m not able to do any sort of longform writing at the moment. Since writing the book I’ve been pitched into different forms of precarious labor, partly because of the success of the book itself. My income streams are mainly public speaking, adjunct teaching, and freelance writing, and that plus cyberspace produces a very broken sense of time, which means that it’s very hard to produce projects.
I am supposed to be working on a collection of writings on music and culture, which is really the other side of Capitalist Realism. One of the other things I’ve written about is this concept of “hauntology,” which has roots in Derrida’s work, and which I and a few other critics have noted in relation to music in particular, but also film and television to some degree. If “capitalist realism” is what we are faced with, hauntology is the kind of mourning or melancholia in relation to what was lost, which isn’t just something that was in the past, but it was the future that we thought would arrive. So the next project will be to bring some of those writings together into a book. I’m not optimistic about being able to do that soon — but I’m partly saying that so as not to tempt fate.
I’m also increasingly concerned with the issues surrounding what I call “cyberspace-time” and the effects on intention and agency by a kind of full immersion into cyberspace-time. Over the last year I’ve seen a lot of people writing about a digital malaise. We’ve been online for a decade in terms of broadband, and we’re only now really starting to become aware of the impacts of this. It’s an important time to reflect on that, which is not to call for some kind of ludicrous withdrawal from the Internet, but it is to ask what it means to gain some time back. As soon as you have a smart phone, you are in cyberspace-time notionally all of your waking life, which means that your attention is split across different platforms, and there are certain kinds of affective pathologies that are starting to emerge from that.