Capitalist Realism

The Mayan calendar had prophesied that the world would end in 2012. Various scientists have predicted that life on Earth will end after an asteroid hits the planet. All these forecasts seem more or less acceptable to the general populace. But will communism ever be the next world order? Not a chance. If one were to inspect carefully, it is easier for us to imagine the end of the world than to think that an alternative to capitalism exists. It is precisely this phenomenon that Mark Fisher wrote about in his book, Capitalist Realism - Is There No Alternative?

Capitalist Realism is the acceptance that “not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” While there is an acceptance of the many faults in capitalism, the ramifications of those faults are often neglected or undermined. Capitalist realism exists because it has managed to become irreplaceable to us and has killed any sort of hope for a new system to take its place. The narrative says that though we may not live in a condition of perfect ‘Goodness’, we must be grateful that we are saved from the ultimate ‘Evil’. 

Capitalism is vehement in the criticism of any alternatives that may be present - while things may not be ideal, the alternatives are much worse. Here, it draws power by painting contrasts between democracies and dictatorships, between civil liberties and stark inequality - where one is shown to be a lesser evil, even if reality may speak differently. The bombing of thousands of innocents in Syria is justified, as long as it does not imitate the ruthless persecution or ethnic cleansing that happened in countries like Rwanda. By characterising itself as a hail-Mary from the disaster that any other alternative would lead to, capitalism poses as a protector and gives way to capitalist realism - the foregone conclusion that what persists is the best out there.

Even for those who realise the problem, there is a severe lack of action. What could be an explanation for this? 

One idea theorised is that the repetition of history has saturated us. In the time and age we are in, it seems that every action we take has already been taken in the past. Imagine the despondency of a generation that has come after history, “whose every move is anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened.” Every act of ours is an experienced cliche, already noted in the accounts of the past. No protest is novel. The realisation is in itself a cliche. When all our attempts to create history are old and uninspired, it eventually leads to a detached witnessing of events instead of active involvement and engagement. There is a saturation of history, which inspires a sense of cultural and political exhaustion - almost sterility - into old and young minds alike.

The bigger threat of the indoctrination of capitalism is that it has penetrated our unconscious. Our unconscious shapes our desires, hopes and aspirations. If one introspects, he/she would realise that our ambitions are driven by a capitalist narrative - the image of success for us is a rich, privileged businessman, who enjoys a position of social, economic and political capital in society. Even while mentally accepting that money is tokenistic and “cannot buy happiness,” we fetishise money. This acceptance of capitalist aims by society as a whole and the subsequent trickle down to an individual level further solidify its existence. 

Strengthening the Roots of Capitalism

It is impossible to think of Stalin, Hitler or Mussolini succeeding without propaganda - their rallies were charged with nationalist sentiment and were publicised to the extent that the idea of a Great Reich was almost shoved down people’s throats. But the way that capitalism promotes itself is more nuanced - the anti-capitalist sentiment is co-opted into capitalism. In a majority of Hollywood movies, the villain turns out to be the CEO of an evil corporation or a wealthy fanatic in retirement. Capitalist realism, therefore, is dangerous as it gets away with including critique within its structure.

We accept that capitalism has problems - but the way we perceive the solution to these problems is problematic in itself. Poverty and income inequality are accepted faults of capitalism. Ask yourself - can we have a world without poverty? Can we have one where there is income equity? Can an egalitarian society exist? The answer will be no. Sure, we are striving towards these goals, but their actual achievement is utopian. Capitalist realism allows the acceptance of a state of crisis in a continuum.

The only way to challenge this idea is to identify how capitalist realism escapes our notice on a day-to-day basis. Fisher gives three simple examples for us to understand this: climate change, bureaucracy, and mental health.

Capitalism is built on the idea of consumerism. A capitalist state aims to grow and expand markets continuously. A system that wants to be on its feet constantly, that is principally in support of bulldozing through time for profits, can never simultaneously aim for sustenance and stability. This dichotomy in the theory of capitalism itself is something that often gets unnoticed. Instead of saying that institutionalised inequalities are a result of consumerism, the narrative is spun on its head by saying that what we buy is going to change the principle of the political theory. For example, we are told to consume alternatives instead of questioning the practicality of usage and reducing our consumption. Buying the right thing, from the right place is projected as a long term solution - but it still feeds into a structure that advocates for consumerism. Climate change can never be solved or dealt with in a capitalist construct because expansion is the ultimate goal and usage of resources is a way to achieve the ‘target’. We will always, despite our best efforts, hold resources secondary to this manic need for material progress.

Liberal and neo-liberal societies, while criticising socialism and communism, highlight the problem with giving excess power to bureaucratic structures. Bureaucrats often exploit their power and it leads to corruption and inefficiency in the economy. The winning pitch for capitalism to be accepted originally was to promise that bureaucracy would vanish. Except, what is the status quo like? Even in late capitalism, bureaucracy still exists. The difference is that it is morphed into a different kind of bureaucracy - one that is allowed to penetrate all forms of structures through things like demanding memos and answering to superiors. This bureaucracy is enforced at all levels of management, establishing its place in the micro-levels of the economy. Capitalist realism further reinforces that we cannot ‘practically’ do without this culture of constantly answering to someone and being monitored, making the control of societies a self-enforcing reality. Essentially, capitalism has failed to differentiate itself from its alternatives on this metric.

Capitalism, in its want to create overachievers and socially acceptable success stories, has created ‘hustle culture’ - one that essentially relies on the idea that one mustn’t stop. If one chooses to listen to music instead of a podcast on the way home, he/she is actively choosing to not add to his/her productivity. If one does not succeed, the burden of the failure is wholly individualistic - one must work harder or do things a particular way because regardless of the kind of burdens one faces (for instance sociological burdens like racism), anyone who strives enough can and must succeed. As a society, we have pressurised people to the extent that mental health issues are on the rise among young people - and no one ties it back to the inherent dysfunction in capitalism. Instead of taking responsibility for this mass pressurisation, we have privatised stress to be caused by individual chemical imbalances. By placing the onus of a healthy state of mind exclusively on the individual instead of accepting how society has failed him/her, we have allowed capitalist realism to become our inevitable reality. 

Once we establish capitalist realism’s claim to fame, one must wonder how it sustains itself. Lacan argues that the concept of the ‘big Other’ in this regard. The PR image that capitalism creates is sustained by those who are willing to buy into this marketing. The Other is simply one who experiences life differently even after knowing what the truth may be. The difference between what one chooses to accept and what exists primarily sustains the ordinary interactions we have daily. When the Other accepts reality as it is and chooses to ignore the narrative that is set out, it creates an abnormality. When Khrushchev’s speech in 1965 accepted the faults in the Soviet Union, it caused an uproar. It was not as if people did not know of the kind of human rights violations and corruption that was happening - the declaration just ensured that ‘the Other’ could not ignore it anymore.

However, unlike Khrushchev in the Soviet Union, there is no incentive for anyone with legitimacy in the Other’s eye to inform the Other of the kind of abominable structure it is living in. The persons considered by the Other as leaders enjoy the power that they hold and acceptance of truth by the masses will threaten their hold over being able to control narratives. Thus, when people who can make a difference choose not to, it serves to further crystallise capitalism.

Playing the Blame Game

The problem with capitalism is accountability. While, in principle, corporations are supposed to be the drivers of growth, they do not take responsibility as they aren’t supposed to look after the welfare of every citizen operating within the ambit of the care of the government. But the government does not take responsibility either because it says that its role is minimised and unwanted. So, any anger towards the system is directed towards an abstraction that is, thus, unresponsive - someone did something wrong and we are now left with the burden of cleaning up the mess. 

We need to hold collective responsibility for issues that plague all of us - like climate change needs to be addressed by each one of us to get any tangible change. The genius of capitalism is especially evident here - it protects itself while making individuals scapegoats. For any scandal that happens, we tend to burden the individual and ask for a more ‘morally upright’ replacement. However, countless examples of upright individuals succumbing to the pressures and power of a particular appointment and ending up corrupt are a testament to the fact that vices are engendered in and by the system - as long as the system persists, these vices will continue to sustain themselves. Therefore, Žižek argues that placing individual responsibility due to the need for “ethical immediacy” lets the system shirk the responsibility of cleaning itself up. He uses the example of the 2008 credit crisis, wherein the blame was put on those ‘horrible people’ who abused the system rather than on the system that encouraged this culture of abuse itself.

Without the acceptance of the possibility of an alternative to capitalism, none of these problems will be effectively tackled and capitalist realism will continue to dominate - perhaps as an unconscious undertone, but with immense power over our economic, social and political interactions.

The Road Ahead 

There may be a glimmer of hope for the world yet. Neoliberal capitalism is no longer secure in its throne as the days of democratic socialism are on the horizon. As the study of late capitalism and its critique increases, protesting voices have emerged.  There is an increasing acceptance of left leaders like Jeremy Corbyn, Alexandria Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and their policies in states that have been the poster-children for capitalism. Healthcare for all, free education and opportunity for the underprivileged are being accepted by a vast majority of people - especially those who have been victims of capitalist structures. The gravity of the stark income inequality is being acknowledged and called out. Corporates and the wealthy are under increasing pressure and scrutiny to pay higher taxes and fulfil any responsibility they have towards the less privileged. While capitalist realism paints a bleak picture of us as a civilisation, perhaps it is time for the sleeping phoenix to rise from the ashes and take us to a better tomorrow. The cracks in the existing system are more prominent and visible today than ever before - the responsibility of analysing them and creating a new order is now on us to fulfil.


Aanandi Arjun

Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.