“…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…