The Paradox of Capitalist Realism

“…The politics of Western powers, and of the American government in particular, are utterly destitute of ingenuity…”

So says Alain Badiou, in an interview I stumbled upon since my last post. As an interesting complement to that discussion, I read through Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? and he coincidentally discussed some of the very same issues. He led me to Badiou with this extended quote that explains the chief paradox in question here:

We live in a contradiction: a brutal state of affairs, profoundly inegalitarian– where all existence is evaluated in terms of money alone – is presented to us as ideal. 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. We kill Iraqis with our airplanes, but we don’t cut their throats with machetes like they do in Rwanda, etc.

The result, Fisher says, is “on the one hand, an official culture in which capitalist enterprises are presented as socially responsible and caring, and, on the other, a widespread awareness that companies are actually corrupt, ruthless, etc.” As I argued previously, this paradox evidences an abject lack of imagination — Fisher discusses how free market capitalism has penetrated our very unconscious — and a profoundly conservative spirit, a total fear of change. So Americans end up having these really absurd public discussions (spectacles, really) in which, for example, it is widely acknowledged that the US healthcare system is deeply broken (inefficient and expensive) and yet absolutely no desire to do anything about it. Even if universal single-payer healthcare had demonstrably failed in every other nation, you would think the so-called patriots on the Right would have enough confidence in “American ingenuity” to believe that we could get it right.

Fisher more eloquently re-states that old “dare to dream” cliche:

…Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable [i.e. neo-conservative free-market capitalism] to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed impossible seem attainable. It is worth recalling that what is currently called realistic was itself once ‘impossible’…

In the same interview quoted initially, Alain Badiou has a beautiful little paragraph that sums up some of my feelings on this:

My philosophy desires affirmation. I want to fight for; I want to know what I have for the Good and to put it to work. I refuse to be content with the “least evil.” It is very fashionable right now to be modest, not to think big. Grandeur is considered a metaphysical evil. Me, I am for grandeur, I am for heroism. I am for the affirmation of the thought and the deed.

Italics mine in both quotes; Badiou quote taken from this excellent Cabinet interview.

I wanted to also point out some other good bits from Capitalist Realism, since I agree with Zizek that it’s “compulsively readable;” short, but sweet, as the saying goes. He blitzes through pop culture & philosophy alike to articulate an overview of the paradoxes and problems in “capitalist realism” (loosely equivalent to “postmodernity”). There are lots of juicy quotes scattered throughout; e.g.:

Capital is an abstract parasite, an insatiable vampire and zombiemaker; but the living flesh it converts into dead labor is ours, and the zombies it makes are us.

Like all good Marxists, Fisher constantly & correctly re-focuses the discussion on systemic evils and the very structures of injustice. I was intrigued by his questioning of the “privatization of stress,” where anxiety & depression is held to be an entirely personal affliction only capable of being assuaged by medication bought from transnational corporations. Instead, “we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill?” It’s possible our current “mental health plague” is closely tied to the very nature of our post-industrial society. The Wall Street Journal had an interesting article a while ago that argued plummeting crime rates during this Great Recession disprove the notion that poverty causes/encourages illegal activity. As a neo-con mouthpiece, of course, the WSJ never stops to consider an alternate explanation: crime rises during prosperous times because capitalism is a disease that infects minds; affluence & conspicuous consumption make people literally dangerous. Removing people from the slavish pursuit of the materialistic American Dream may be psychologically & emotionally healthy enough to drastically affect crime rates.

There’s also a comparative sketch, drawn from Deleuze & Guattari I believe, of the difference between Disciplinary societies (e.g. my parents’ generation) and Controlling societies (our contemporary age). Fisher: “If the figure of discipline was the worker-prisoner, the figure of control is the debtor-addict.” Never before has it been easier, in one sense, to escape the prison of subservient work — never has it been easier to access information, to immediately jet across the world, to telecommute, etc. Yet today’s world is no more free because of our debtor-addict status: we can learn of alternate lifestyles previously unheard of, but we can’t actually do anything but a 9-5 job because of credit & college debt, mortgage & car payments, etc. We are addicts both to consuming and spending, but also the infotainment matrix that has us hooked on pleasure (“hedonic depression,” Fisher calls it). As is often pointed out, this is precisely where Orwell got it wrong & Huxley presciently nailed it: in Orwellian dystopia we are enslaved by fascists who deprive of us what we want (especially information); whereas in Huxleyan dystopia we are enslaved by fascists who give us everything we want — overstimulated, undereducated, perpetually captivated by the ever-shifting Now; wage-slaves because of our own addictions, not because of an over-arching disciplinary Big Brother.

There are lots of other great stuff I could delve into but will instead just refer you to Fisher’s book. Other interesting material includes the paradox of increasing bureaucracy that accompanies increasing privatization (or “freeing” of the market); the politicization of supposedly non-political spheres; he also delves into a bit of Lacanian psychoanalysis with discussion of the “big Other” who determines behavior and yet never materializes, etc…

9 thoughts on “The Paradox of Capitalist Realism

  1. Kevin, I perceive that in the past you were on a particular wave of Derrida/postmodern enthusiasm and are now wading into Zizek/Badiou territory (mainly through their politics), which is the situation that I’m in (except in a very shallow arm-chair-philosophy sort of way). Do you have any opinions on Badiou’s philosophical project and, in general, the ‘return to metaphysics’? Have you at all encountered Speculative Realism? Do you think that this newer stuff overturns (as, I think, it would claim) Heidegger/Derrida, or do you think it is just a different perspective?

    Also, have you heard of It has for download most of the continental philosophy canon. I think they might be getting picky about new members signing up so maybe put something sincere for the reason you are joining.

  2. You correctly articulated my general intellectual trajectory, though I would say my sympathies are still primarily with the Derrida/Heidegger crowd. I also came to non/anti-realism through some analytic philosophy, so overall it’s not something I can jettison very easily. I think the neo-Marxists and realists of all stripes would take issue with postmodernism — ie more than just a different perspective. I know very little of Badiou, though his St. Paul book is probably next on my list to read. But yes, as I understand it he joins with guys like Zizek & Jameson in the return to metaphysics… a return I’m just not ready to make. Like you said, I mainly just mine these Marxists for political inspiration (re: life in the American empire) and try to discard the metaphysical baggage. But even Zizek says somewhere (I think) that he gladly sheds Marx’s dialectical materialism, which is obviously a huge problem with so-called Marxism proper. I think it might’ve been Peter Singer that said people like me (us?) are Marxian, not Marxist. Either way, once you approach things like anarchism, socialism or communism after going through postmodernism, things become very interesting imho.

    Also, apparently my blog no longer allows me to make paragraph breaks in comments, and this makes me sad.

  3. Yea I’m in the same boat. I’m just sorta coming to terms with being able to read Derrida/Heidegger, but Badiou looks just damned impossible. I agree that Badiou and co. would certainly reject Derrida/Heidegger, but obviously theories can be appropriated without their owner’s approval. Badiou has labelled Derrida and the turn to language as a “dead end for philosophy” and I think he doesn’t really interact with it (I assume he interacts with Heidegger though). In my mind, I’ve assumed that Derrida and Badiou have different goals in philosophy and that both are advantageous (I do this with my hazy understanding of Derrida/Deleuze as well [and Deleuze is a huge influence on Badiou, I think]). I’ve recently realized that for me Heidegger/Derrida are the ones that I rely on the most to describe reality, and metaphysics, because its so obviously over-the-top, just feels natural to apply as a provisional model towards the world (I’m thinking about making “phenomenology is the new metaphysics” t-shirts). Should I ever understand Badiou’s metaphysics, I’m sure I’ll read it much more provisionally than he wants me to and just use it as model when its useful (in the same way, I think substance theory is bogus as a description of the bottom layer of reality but I still find its a useful model for solving some problems).

  4. three things:

    1. doesn’t fucking matter because 2pacalypse is coming up. keep your eyes out, and reorient your damned ‘intellectual trajectory’ to something that matters. (and i’m not yet talking about the ‘badiou fucks up everything dr. mills taught me about neo-marxism and its metaphysical base’ claim)

    2. eagleton’s ‘after theory’ > anything badiou says.

    3. i actually liked the whole pomo/derrida ===> zizek/badiou trajectory discussion. struck close to home. next step: old and conservative and gross.

    all i’ve got.

  5. Micah: I don’t know, but there have to be tons. Let me know what you find. By the way, I’m on AAAARG but without an e-reader I basically just end up stockpiling PDFs that never get read.

    Michael: that was pleasantly reminiscent of a Mark Swan/Christian Sanderson rant. Keep it up.

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