CAPITALIST REALISM IN THE 21ST CENTURY
In the Western experience, it seems the Kantian-inspired bar on consideration of the sensuous affect as integral to the agency side of pure morality has , it seems, contributed to a disembodied moral life that contributes to an ethos of pleasure and comfort-seeking as a poor substitute for ‘the good life’. The ‘goods life’ has trumped the good life. Another Buddhist commentator, David Loy, describes ‘attention’ as the basic commodity – the fundamental target of capitalisation as the production complex seeks to convince us that the solution to our dukka[i]or nagging sense of lack is the next purchase.
Commodity culture has turned the relation between morality and the sensuous on its head. This is most visible in the impoverished value systems of narcissism in celebrity culture and the accompanying forms of violence inflicted on the body. In an essay on Michael Jackson – ‘so consumed by self-loathing he carved his African American face into an ever-changing Caucasian death mask’ – Chris Hedges observes that the fantasy of celebrity culture is not designed simply to entertain.[ii] It is designed, rather, to drain us emotionally, confuse us about our identity, make us blame ourselves for our predicament, condition us to chase illusions of fame and happiness, and keep us from fighting back. Rowe coined the term ‘attention economy’, explaining that the basic resource of the new economy is not something provided to the consumer but something provided by the consumer to the capitalist complex, namely ‘mindshare’.[iii] ‘But what if there’s only so much mind to share?’ he asks.[iv] Might the social depression and stress that accompanies the culture of consumerism be traced to the commodification of cognitive space – a new frontier in the long history of enclosure…an enclosure of the cognitive commons, the ambient mental atmosphere of daily life.
If Nitzan and Bichler offer a compelling account of the totalizing drive of dominant ‘capital as power’,[v] then Fisher’s Capitalist Realism serves as the user handbook for the consumer immersed in the universe of unfreedom posing as unlimited choice. Capitalism, writes Fisher, in a nod to Marx and Engels’s The Communist Manifesto[vi] – is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics. This vision of control and communication no longer relies on subordination but extends an open invitation for all to interact and participate.
Fisher’s notion of capitalist realism encompasses much more than the quasi-propagandistic way in which advertising functions. It is what he describes as a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action. Here we recognise the penetrative power of capitalisation – reaching across institutions where forms of social control can deliver ‘attention’ and recruit it in the race to ‘beat the average’ return.[vii]
In the process capitalism engages in an ‘amoral affective engineering’, preferring to articulate injunctions in terms of ‘health’ rather than ethics. Fisher writes: ‘Morality has been replaced by feeling. In the ‘empire of the self’ everyone ‘feels the same’ without every escaping a condition of solipsism’.[viii] Noting the prevalence of widespread mental health problems – including those among students in UK universities – Fisher calls for a conversion of these problems into effective antagonisms, describing affective disorders as ‘captured discontent’ caused by Capital. He concludes:
Furthermore, the proliferation of certain kinds of mental illness in late capitalism makes the case for a new austerity, a case that is also made by the increasing urgency of dealing with environmental disaster. Nothing contradicts capitalism’s constitutive imperative towards growth more than the concept of rationing goods and resources. Yet it is becoming uncomfortably clear that consumer-self regulation and the market will not by themselves avert environmental catastrophe. There is a libidinal as well as a practical case, to be made for this new ascesis. If … unlimited license leads to misery and disaffection, then limitations placed on desire are likely to quicken rather than deaden, it.[ix]
In his discussion on the ‘social logic of consumerism’ and delinking the prevailing understanding of prosperity as the accumulation of material wealth, Tim Jackson notes a consensus in the academic literature on the existence of a ‘social recession’ in modern western society.[x] The consensus holds that there are rising rates of anxiety and clinical depression, increased alcoholism and binge drinking, and a decline in morale at work. Berardi[xi]notes that the technical definition of depression is the deactivation of desire after a panicked acceleration and calls on us to see depression not as a mere pathology, but also as a form of knowledge. Citing James Hillman, Berardi recalls that depression is a condition in which the mind faces the knowledge of impermanence and death. Suffering, imperfection, senility, decomposition: this is the truth that can be viewed from a depressive point of view. Drawing on the work of Deleuze and Guattari, Berardi asserts that when dealing with a depression the challenge is not to bring the depressed person back to normality, to reintegrate behaviour in the universal standards of normal social language. The goal, rather, is to change the focus of the sufferer’s depressive attention, to re-focalize, to deterritorialize the mind and the expressive flow. The goal is to offer the possibility of seeing new landscapes, to overcome the obsessive and repetitive refrain. At the level of society, he anticipates a reconsideration of the notion of wealth and its association with purchasing power, so that a new emphasis might be placed on enjoyment. For it is in the disciplinary culture of modernity that has equated pleasure and possessing that many of our problems have their origin. And economic thinking created scarcity and privatized social need in order to make possible the process of capitalist accumulation. In the days to come, Berardi anticipates that politics and therapy will be one and the same.
[i] A Buddhist term associated with suffering arising from ignorance, craving and insatiability.
[ii] Chris Hedges, The World As It is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress (Nation Books, 2001), at 40.
[iii] J. Rowe, ‘Carpe Callosum’, 9:6 Adbusters (2001).
[v] J. Nitzan and S. Bichler, n. 8 above.
[vi] In The Communist Manifesto of 1848 Marx and Engels had already described how capitalism had drowned the most heavily ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm in the icy water of egotistical calculation. See K. Marx and F. Engels, The Communist Manifesto (Merlin Press, 1998).
[vii] See M. Fisher, n. 4 above.
[viii] Ibid., at 74.
[ix] Ibid., at 80.
[x] See T. Jackson, n. Error! Bookmark not defined. above, at 86.
[xi] F.B. Berardi, n. Error! Bookmark not defined. above, at 214-215.