Capitalist Realism and Real Capitalism

Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism was a joy to listen to and it cost me $5.  The reason I bring up the $5 is because Mark Fisher charged me this even though he hates capitalism.  Or his left-wing publisher charged me this.  Either way, I got the book and they got my money.  

That communists and socialists are almost always participating in capitalism has become kind of a stale joke at this point; and authors such as Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Slavoj Zizek, the latter who inspired this book with "it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism," have been making a living telling us how rotten it is making a living.  This level of hypocrisy has no historical comparison.  It's as if all the followers of Jehovah could only worship Him at the altar of Ba'al, or as if the only way to fight racism was to pick a race and demonize it into submission.     

The question is, why?  Why is it that every socialist and communist and every pie-in-the-sky utopian finds himself taking part in the very thing he claims to hate?  They all argue that until the system is smashed, they have to.  But I posit that what they call capitalism isn't a system or an ideology at all, but a series of assumptions we all take for granted and that if we questioned them seriously, we'd all end up killing each other within weeks.

These assumptions are that, in order to survive,

1) A person ought to have something that he has a right to use at any time, and that this "something" is known as his property

2) That everybody else is excluded from using it unless he gives them permission to.

3) That he can give it away if he wants to, and he can also trade it for something somebody else owns, and 

4) That people who take what isn't theirs are dangerous and worthy of persecution.

Once you accept these four general positions, you're a full-fledged capitalist.  You can refuse them, of course, but that means war -- a hellish uncertainty where everything you think you own can be taken at any minute (a state known as anarchy), or a world where somebody else decides what little you get to have and thus everything you get to do (a system commonly known as slavery).      

Thus, I posit there is no "system."  There is no conspiracy. The "system" exists in every single one of us at every single moment and comes into play whenever two people, who think of the future and plan on living happily for a bit, are forced to interact with each other.  

The leftist rails "the system" because all leftism is an attack on systems.  If leftism blames the underclasses for their own failures it turns into conservatism.  So like the average moron criminal or deadbeat environmentalist, the leftist puts all the blame on everything but himself: the more faceless the enemy, the more abstract, the further removed from his own personal needs and choices, the better.  He accuses everyone else of the things he won't quit, because he won't and can't quit them.  He's worse than cursed with Original Sin: he's effectively his own devil.

Still, Capitalist Realism is a fun read for several reasons.  He writes about marketers who capitalize on the sacred,

The power of capitalist realism derives in part from the way that capitalism subsumes and consumes all of previous history: one effect of its ‘system of equivalence’ which can assign all cultural objects, whether they are religious iconography, pornography, or Das Kapital, a monetary value. Walk around the British Museum, where you see objects torn from their lifeworlds and assembled as if on the deck of some Predator spacecraft, and you have a powerful image of this process at work.

He adds,

Capitalism 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.

Apart from the fact that others' beliefs, unless we adopt them, can only rise to the level of either a curiosity or a threat, he apparently never read Ayn Rand, or at least her speech pertaining to the meaning of money.  He believes that putting a dollar price on something cheapens it when we used to put sheep on it, or the deed to a house on it -- in short, that most everything material does have an exchange value, and that when money is gone, people rank things in ammo, or bar soap: not a rise in value or a heightening of sentiments, but a drop in both convenience and precision.  

He also ignores the fact that many things can't be bought with money: that few are willing to sell their children, or sell a kidney, or even keep a job when they'd rather tell the truth; and that if many people are selling relics or American flag boxer-briefs or turning George Floyd into a talking pull-string doll, there are many believers who are disgusted by these sales and won't touch them -- that sacredness may be commercialized to everyone except those who consider things sacred.  The man who reveres something pays for it not with cash, but with attendance, prayer, dancing, singing, penance, tithing, submission, and acts of outright sacrifice.  He can live for it, but he can never own it.  It owns him.

He further quotes Badiou about why capitalists gloss over the sins and abuses of capitalism: 

To justify their conservatism, the partisans of the established order cannot really call it ideal or wonderful. So instead, they have decided to say that all the rest is horrible. Sure, they say, we may not live in a condition of perfect Goodness. But we’re lucky that we don’t live in a condition of Evil. Our democracy is not perfect. But it’s better than the bloody dictatorships. Capitalism is unjust. But it’s not criminal like Stalinism. We let millions of Africans die of AIDS, but we don’t make racist nationalist declarations like Milosevic. 

Fisher adds,

The ‘realism’ here is analogous to the deflationary perspective of a depressive who believes that any positive state, any hope, is a dangerous illusion.

What he ignores here is the rock-bottom fact that having your family tortured and dying in a Gulag is objectively worse than being poor and having a shitty boss, and that everything you choose to do in life involves pain anyway.  The question isn't whether to get rid of all pain, but which pain you prefer to the others.  You either suffer at the gym or you suffer from being fat.  You suffer reading the news or you become it.  To dream of a world without suffering isn't idealistic but stupid; and the great spiritual enemy of the socialist isn't the capitalist, but the Buddhist: the man who realizes goods in evils and evils in goods, and has made up his mind for the latter.  

To hope for perfection is to damn yourself to failure.  It's to consign yourself to a lifetime of disappointment and frustration.  The man who aims for everything will enjoy nothing.  Thus, the capitalist hasn't thrown away hope: he's achieved it.  He lives in a state of constant exchange and thus possibility.  He has, in his possession, the thing the man in Venezuela, in North Korea, in Communist China -- in the Soviet gulag -- dreams about.  

So much can be said for chapter 1, and I encourage anyone interested in thinking to rent it -- but not before buying Ayn Rand's For the New IntellectualProperty should be spent on people who respect it.  Borrow Marxists' books from the library -- or follow their lead and steal them.  

Jeremy Egerer is the author of the troublesome essays on Letters to Hannah, and he welcomes followers on Twitter, and Facebook.

Image: Zero Books 

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