Learning to Desire Differently:
Afterword to the Danish Translation of Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher
Essay by Macon Holt
My copy of Capitalist Realism is borderline unreadable now. Pencil lines of varying intensity and obscure coding underscore and circle and emphasise almost every sentence of the book. As each reading over the chronology of my ongoing education revealed and still reveals new valences and connections to me. Every time I teach this book, which I have to art students, and musicians, and activists, NGO workers and curious and hungry friends, I have dog-eared the corners of new pages (and there aren’t so many of those) and filled the blank space with notes and questions that I once could have asked the author but that I no longer can.
Mark Fisher was one of the supervisors for my PhD, which meant that while we had some fantastic conversations over the course of writing the thesis, I was in some ways reluctant to acknowledge exactly how much I identified with his work and analysis. And so, I missed my chance to ask many of the questions that currently haunt me. After Mark finally succumbed to the depression that had burdened him since he was a teenager and he took his own life, I sat across the table from my examiners during my viva (the private version of a UK PhD defence). They made clear to me that my efforts to distance my work from his, through some picayune technicalities, had been entirely in vain. The only thing more conspicuous than his absence in the day’s proceedings was the presence of his thinking in my thesis. His work was tarried with and subject to a certain amount of detournement, but its ethos and drive, and commitments had been fully incorporated in my writing. My examiners told me to lean into this as I transformed the thesis into a book of my own. And so began the process of properly using the book and embracing the rush of thought that came with each sentence as it articulated the politics and aesthetics of the malaise that had been my experience of life in Britain, and which I have come to learn is more commonly felt around the world. It was while reading Capitalist Realism again that the title of my book came to me and I scrawled it on the title page. And this unreplayable debt is paid forward as the title of Mark’s book in part comprises the subtitle of mine.
I put all this subjective baggage up front to warn you that this introduction will make no paltry gestures toward that impossible and undesirable goal of objectivity. That would be no way to give an account of the affect of Mark’s project. As a Spinozist, Mark was committed to rationality but also knew how essentially complicated that project was when we acknowledge not only our capacity to affect but also to be affected. This is why themes of mental health and aesthetics play so prominently in a book ostensibly about politics because, in addition to our material conditions, the affective control over our conditions of possibility is what defines capitalist realism. This becomes even more complicated, when it comes to giving an account of the experience of our relationships to something as both immediate and abstract as the economics systems and structures of power that surround us, form us, and penetrate us. Such a task is only possible, and in only 86 pages no less, if the subjective is fully embraced as the site of radical and rigorous contestation. This is exactly what Capitalist Realism performs. It is this desire to open up the positionalities afforded to us by the increasingly impersonal, alienating and distressing conditions of neoliberalised life that each of the references to films, music, books and philosophy is in service of. It does not so much offer an explanation of what is and what has happened, but instead, it makes accessible a consciousness of our condition. Thus the book becomes a meeting point through which we can find each other and continue the project of learning to desire differently.
The long, dark night of the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity. The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again. – Mark Fisher
The Crash After History’s end
Capitalist Realism is a book about how to understand a context. This context is an inflexion point between history, political economy, society, culture, bodies and aesthetics. The fact that Mark was British and lived in Britain his whole life probably played a role in this too. There is something special about the kind of despair that emerges in a place haunted by the fading memories, the atrophying institutions and the regressive values of a fading empire. This is the kind of place, following the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the triumph of liberal market capitalism over, what some have called, communism, where the declaration of history’s end was also the start of, what Mark called, “the slow cancellation of the future”.
After the destruction of much of the welfare state and union power in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, the agenda for the years to come was set. There would not so much be progress as there would be the development of new ways and means and discourses to legitimize the introduction of market dynamics in more and more parts of people’s lives. And yet there seemed not to be any effective political resistance to this. After her party lost power in the 1997 election, Thatcher was asked what her greatest political achievement was. She said, “Tony Blair”, the new Prime Minister and the leader of the union-supported Labour Party. And indeed, looking at the application of market-based dynamics and targets into public services like health care and the insertion of commodifying dynamics of student fees into higher education that transforms study into consumption, Thatcher was right to point to New Labour as her victory. It was as if capitalism was becoming synonymous with realism itself to the extent that even its ostensible opponents no longer even attempted to oppose it.
In the absence of what seemed like any viable alternative system of social or economic organization, the 90s and 00s in what used to be called The West saw the solidifying of this new realism. This process could be read in the new management strategies offered by consultants which gave employees the opportunity to set their own targets like they were rugged individual entrepreneurs as documented by the sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello. While at the same time, the conditions of their employment became more precarious. The process could be seen in the emergence of glass and stainless steel “non-places”, to use Marc Augé’s term, that transformed the public squares into nodes for the efficient accumulation of capital. The process could be heard in the stagnation of popular music as every successful artist seemed to only offer remastered versions of already established hits. The idea of becoming a musician at all became a folly that could only be indulged by the already wealthy. And the affects of this process could be felt in the atmospheres of the classrooms of the schools, colleges and universities, as students nervously tried to maximize, as I remember from my own state education, their “life chances”.
It was in such classrooms, working in the 00s as a teacher of philosophy and religion in 6th form colleges, that Mark began to formulate his critique of all this. The deadening of affect he saw both in his students and the world around him appeared to be part of some greater tendency. It was something he documented in his work as a freelance writer and critic, and expanded on theoretically on his, then, increasingly popular blog, K-Punk. There seemed to him to be something artificial and limited about the way what was possible seemed to begin and end with the labour arrangements of what was now fully neoliberal capitalist political economy. Yet there seemed to be no hunger to move past this arrangement because economic growth seemed assured and to challenge that was seen as dangerous, outdated sacrilege. Tony Blair’s deputy, John Prescott, once said, “we are all middle class now”. As such it could be argued that the metrics of economic prosperity would eventually be materially shared, at some point… later… down the road. And it seemed this was all thanks to the stability brought about by this new realism.
That was of course until, in 2008, the extent of the fantasy that had been propping up this seemingly endless growth was revealed in the sub-prime mortgage scandal and the global financial crisis that followed. What had appeared as the unassailable realism of the market was called into question. The façade had been irreparably cracked. In 2009, as this new space was opening and the austere consequences of the crisis started to reverberate through the public sectors and services of many countries and the entire economies of others, Mark released Capitalist Realism. In doing so, he hoped to seize upon this moment of disillusionment to diagnose the inertia of the present and to assert the idea that another future is possible.
Mark had completed his PhD in Philosophy and Literature in 1999 from the University of Warwick. Warwick’s focus on the continental tradition in its philosophy department has made it something of an outlier in anglophone institutions. But the formation by some staff and students of the (institutionally disavowed) Cybernetic Cultures Research Unit (CCRU) in the 90s had made it a hotbed of innovative thought that still reverberates through critical theory, tech/art activism and social media shit posters. Mark was a key member of this group as they produced cryptic, ferociously polemic, playfully anonymous texts that prefigured the dissolution of the self that they saw as being underway as new media technoculture saturated the reality of now global capitalism.
His academic focus at that time was to use post-structuralist philosophy, particularly the work of Deleuze and Guattari and Baudrillard, and cyberpunk science fiction, particularly that of William Gibson and J. G. Ballard, to elaborate on the concepts developed by CCRU. These were hyperstition and theory-fiction. Both ideas were based on the notion that culture was a component of a complex cybernetic system through which ideas could be actualized by way of the intersection of economics, technology and bodies. A compound of hyper and superstition, hyperstition describes how an idea articulated in the present could be actualized in the future. A key example of this is how the fictional term of “cyberspace”, used by Gibson in his novel, Neuromancer, in 1984, went on to become the conceptual dispositif used by the tech sector to imbue a sense of romance and adventure into formerly nerdy internet. Theory-fiction was the medial substrate through which such a mechanism could operate. It was a practice of reading and writing and media production that worked from the supposition that no distinction could any longer be made between theory and fiction. To theorize about the world was to produce a fictional narration about a partial slice of an irreducibly complex cybernetic system. Furthermore, theory was not outside of the system but always already part of it. Thus, its narrations enacted a force upon that system that would change it in seemingly unpredictable ways. At the same time, through mechanisms like hyperstition, fictions could have such a powerful influence over the system, that in retrospect they appeared to be incredibly predictive theories. To Mark and the CCRU, this begged the question of why not use this concept collapse to cultivate a more intensely affective practice.
Overt politics seems to be conspicuously absent from these projects. This has to do with the historical context laid out above. The old framework of left vs right political struggle seemed to have lost its relevance with the end of the cold war with the apparent victory of the capitalist West. In short, in the conditions of globalization, the communicative networks produced by technological development and the proliferation of signs that this resulted in, traditional political positions and the tools by which they attempted to affect change seemed outmoded and ineffectual. So to the extent that CCRU had a politics, it could be thought of as a kind of libertarian accelerationism. The libertarianism stemmed from the new technology as it intersected with discourses of posthumanism that seemed to open up new vectors for freedom through the dissolution of the identity systems of the old world. In a related move, accelerationism saw the configuration of liberal capitalism as far too humanistic for the emerging world. It picked up threads from Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus and other texts to argue that the only way past capitalism was through it. Which is to say by utilizing and infesting its infrastructure, certain accelerationists believed it would be possible to accelerate the process of capitalism so much that it could no longer be metabolized by the bourgeois identity systems it was built upon, and something else would emerge. Others believe that capital itself was the inhuman agent of this acceleration and such a process would not lead to capitalism’s overthrow but merely the elimination of the human.
Suffice to say, this is not immediately evident in the work of Mark in the book he wrote nine years later. But I think this background is important to understanding the multivalence of critique and affirmation in Capitalist Realism. In this book, published just as the global financial crisis was starting to bite into and deform the lives of a generation, Mark argues that since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the neoliberal revolution that preceded it, the spirit of the times had been animated by an effort, aligned with the benefactors of this political arrangement, to foreclose the possibility of both social and political change and thus the future. All projects to move society beyond liberal market-based capitalism seem doomed from the start. As Thatcher put it, “there is no alternative” to this political economy. And even the domain of mainstream politics itself has been ceding the grounds of valediction to some ill-conceived notion of market democracy. Thus, the left has been infected with a “reflexive impotence” (a feeling of defeat from the start that prevents action) that only serves to reinforce the order of things as a “business ontology” (the “realism” that works to foreclose opportunities for change), which seeps ever deeper into ever more fields of life, reducing people to human resources in the service of unending growth on the backs of increasingly alienated labour. The immense accumulation of commodities that comprise the culture industry provides respite from this only in as much as they maintain our state of “depressive hedonia” (the metastasized un/pleasure principle of consumption).
This may sound similar to many other critical theories of the present. But the difference—especially from how so much critical theory is practised here in Denmark, where ideas seem to tacitly be held to the standard of usefulness towards the perfection of the coercive, exclusionary project of perfecting a social democracy built upon past, present and future global and local exploitation—is in Capitalist Realism’s willingness to forthrightly articulate the stakes. It refuses the placating distance of locating its object of concern at a safe historical distance, or confining it to some technical component of our economic apparatus, or by forcing all desire for change into the container concept of an indefinitely postponed revolution to be realised only when we reach its horizon. Instead, Mark was still working from the supposition that he as a writer, us as readers and the objects under discussion through which he articulated theory (from the economy to music) are immanently connected. And through this Spinozist cybernetics, the occasion of critique becomes the insertion of new forces into the world which can destabilize its systems. What Fisher does in this book is provide a theory-fiction that infuses this analysis with an ethos that claims, even in the midst of all these agencies that seemingly exceed us, we, in the now, have a capacity to affect change. This is an attempt at hyperstition rather than a plea for hope.
A point I always emphasise when I teach Capitalist Realism is the particular inflection that forms Fisher’s invocation of the leftist cliché, variously attributed to Frederick Jameson and Slavoj Žižek; that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. While this often serves to illustrate the horrifying depth of the ideological commitment in the world to the maintenance of the status quo, I think he uses it to make a subtle provocation in the vein of CCRU. Rather than placing the world beyond capitalism behind what the philosopher, Peter Wolfendale, might call an eschatological veil, Fisher’s project in this book is to show that capitalism has attempted to make itself synonymous with reality and the world, and to the extent that it has succeeded in merely constructing this appearance, we should be excited by the prospect of tearing it down. In short, if it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, and capitalism claims to be the world, then let’s take the easier route and work and plan to bring about the world’s end. This excitement comes directly from the feeling of new capacities for knowing that follows from imbibing something that rigorously argues that you need not individualise the suffering brought on by the world-as-it-is. And then this capacity for knowing is amplified by virtue of the fact that you share this capacity with so many others who have read this text. This is the hyperstitional process underway.
In this sense, I would say that Mark was always an accelerationist. But in this phase of his life and thinking, he was firmly of the left accelerationist orientation (a position best summarised in the work of some of those influenced by Mark, the political theorists, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams). Capitalist Realism, then, is an accelerant within and against the world as it is. It is a resource to help capitalism self-destruct and allow for the emergence of some new world. It calls for the kind of pragmatic and opportunistic strategies that both recognize the conditions of the struggle and refuse to allow them to limit our thinking about the next steps to take, and helps us imagine where we want to end up.
In keeping with this idea of the book as a step towards something else, I wanted to make sure this introduction captured the way in which Capitalist Realism has already set so much in motion. I decided to follow the trajectory that Mark’s friend, the theorist and artist, Kodwo Eshun laid out in his memorial lecture for Fisher in 2018. In it, Eshun claimed that his friend and collaborator’s legacy was for us to “work out the ways and the means and the methods for continuing to work in and with and away from and by way of Mark’s writing and his thinking”. So to catch something of this vector that links Capitalist Realism to the present, I read the recently published collection of his final lectures at Goldsmiths, “Postcapitalist Desire” (2021). These transcripts provide a fleeting but vivid glimpse of a thinker committed to producing spaces in which a life beyond drudgery and the dehumanising logics of our political economy could be imagined with a tantalising tangibility. While, at the same time, forging a community that shared this commitment. Capitalist Realism is a potent book filled with a constellation of ideas central to a project Mark would continue to develop over the last not-even-a-decade of his life. From the analysis of the pseudo-totality of capitalist realism, he would then look at the relationship between our foreclosed futurity and depression through music art and film in Ghosts of my Life (2014) and the horror aesthetics that underpinned his notion of capitalism in The Weird and the Eerie (2016). While it was tragically curtailed by his suicide, we can see a glimpse of the next move in his unfinished introduction to his next book Acid Communism. The project of this book, some of which can be read in his final lectures, was to consider what capitalism inhibited. A project that can be seen embryonically in Capitalist Realism. In the introduction to Acid Communism he writes:
“…the last forty years have been about the exorcising of ‘the spectre of a world which could be free’. Adopting the perspective of such a world allows us to reverse the emphasis of much recent left-wing struggle. Instead of seeking to overcome capital, we should focus on what capital must always obstruct: the collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy.”
We are left to pursue this project of shifting our focus to that which capital must obstruct. And Capitalist Realism performs the first step of that project.
Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable. – Mark Fisher
Intellectual Without Being Academic
To close, I’d like to offer some thoughts about how these mechanisms of obstruction operate. Mark’s only fixed academic position was at Goldsmiths in the final years of his life. As mentioned above, the kind of strategies he employed in his analysis alone would have been enough to deter many of the potential employers of the academic establishment – were they to have even read them rather than simply to have dismissed them after glancing at the name of his publishers. These books had been published by presses, first Zer0 and then Repeater, he had co-founded with others who wished to give voice to their disenchantment with the world and their desire for the world to be enchanted differently. Mark co-authored the mission statement for Zer0 Books, which still reads as a relevant searing critique of and antidote to the mediocrities of British intellectual discourse. They declared;
“A cretinous anti-intellectualism presides, cheered by expensively educated hacks in the pay of multinational corporations who reassure their bored readers that there is no need to rouse themselves from their interpassive stupor […] Zer0 books knows that another kind of discourse – intellectual without being academic, popular without being populist – is not only possible: it is already flourishing, in regions beyond the strip lit malls of so-called mass media and neurotically bureaucratic halls of academia. Zer0 is committed to the idea of publishing as a making public of the intellectual.”
The importance of this antagonistic position in Mark’s work cannot be understated. For him, there was a seriousness about theoretical work that meant it could not be left in the hands of the self-serious institutions that diligently worked to maintain the status quo. There was joy to be had in unfolding the problems before us and imagining and producing routes beyond them. A joy that so much of the British establishment seemed set up to stifle. However, by refusing to defer his contempt for the mechanisms of capitalist realism through historical distance, or political sockpuppetry or economic niceties, and instead strongly assert the significance of the correlation between instrumental alienation and the despair that he and so many others felt, Mark became the recipient of quite a bit of contempt in return from those who had built careers by insisting upon these distancing and defanging moves. But these criticisms took nothing from the power of Mark’s analysis or argument. Inspiring contempt in your opponents is a vital part of effectively and adequately theorising the present. Doing so will trigger the defence of the status quo in ways that more “appropriately” presented theory will not. To quote Kodwo Eshun, speaking on the myopia of Mark’s establishment critics:
“Part of the value of theory as it was, as it is lived and loved and studied comes from the antipathy, and the indifference and the hostility and the incomprehension that it incites, engenders and provokes”
This is a struggle, and the future is the territory that is at stake. The building of consensus may be a task for others engaged in other projects, but it is not the concern of the theorist articulating the intolerability of the present. And the importance of such articulation needs to be emphasized because it is in the moments of revelation and consternation it produces that the contingencies of “the way of the world” can be apprehended and thus begin to shift.
But eventually, between his books and his blog (a printed collection of which comes in at over 800 pages), the potency of Mark’s thought became undeniable. Today, a quote from Capitalist Realism adorns a wall at Goldsmiths, attributed to him and his blogging moniker, K-Punk:
“Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable.”
In safer times, an annual memorial lecture is held there and, each year, former students have organized the club night, For K-Punk, at a nearby venue and engage in the communal and corporeal practice of discovering new desires together. Mark’s work had made him undeniable to an institutional modality that had previously scorned him.
But we should be careful not to think that this eventual gaining of academic territory was anything more than a useful strategic resource. It is not as if getting a university job validated Mark’s work. As academia becomes a more and more difficult game to navigate that requires evermore personal material wealth to play, it also becomes a more inadequate place from which to theorize the necessary changes to further realize those joys Mark cherished. And this is, even more, the case in what is called the humanities as those practices that refuse the role of providing the resources of nationalist cultural tourism, or insist upon the immanence of the political in our understanding of art and further, refuse to assert a false neutrality are marginalized in the service of educating the human resources of the future.
If Mark had been a student today, in the UK, or even in Denmark, I doubt he would have been able to pursue a PhD. The problems with the UK system are obvious and one can find throughout Mark’s writing various diagnoses and polemics and pained articulations of how this system weaponizes shame and guilt. The individualization of mental anguish is one of the main ways that Mark argued capitalist realism deflects those desires that may otherwise bring about change. And with the marketized pressures on the UK higher education system, academia in that country has become an apparatus to foreclose the future by tormenting staff and students alike. Given this known dire state of affairs, I want to follow this vector in Mark’s thought to the Danish context this introduction serves.
Starting with the assertions of the Zer0 books mission statement and Mark’s analysis of institutionalized psychological isolation, I’d claim the problems in Danish academia and intellectual life, as I see them, are related to how I have claimed elsewhere that the country reproduces capitalist realism. If the UK is predominantly stuck with a kind of crippling nostalgia, Denmark is hysterically working to constantly reinstantiate the present. Both of these restrain the futurity we need now more than ever. In the UK, the nostalgia mechanism is mostly achieved by economic inequality and the class system, which bars so many exciting thinkers from the discursive and affective spaces that may instigate change. But the injustice here is clear. And there are avenues of invention that combined with inhuman amounts of effort can allow one or a scene to break into those spaces of at least cultural significance.
In Denmark, it can appear as if all this has been resolved. Anyone ostensibly has access to a graduate education. Thus, common sense says, it would be unfeasible if all those with the drive and ability to go after them were all to get PhDs. Whatever merit there may be to the argument that thought should not be the preserve of academia falls by the wayside in Denmark, however, as I have noticed over the years the power of an institutionalist normalising impulse on par with the class system that brought me up. Writers come from the writers’ school, artists come from the art academy and composers and musicians come from the conservatories. You are entitled to your opinion only because it doesn’t matter because thinkers have PhDs. And you get a PhD by playing the game by the University’s rules. The same rules that are tacitly set by nervous politicians and the education and research policy by which these institutions are allowed to produce the next generation of highly, but not too highly, qualified Danish human resources. And for the politicians, who are political scientists that are quite concerned about what they call “objectivity”, this all makes perfect sense. The incessant return and reproduction of the cultural same is guaranteed as there is an all-too-limited role for the outside of institutional vetting in this dynamic. Inside this system, everyone gets a summer house and stress diagnosis. Outside, I have watched it crush the drive and self-belief of some of the brightest people I have ever met. As they struggle to reconcile what they know to be their capacity for vital critical insight into our culture with the disdain their work receives from the educational, social and political institutions of the country. I hope anyone who recognises themself in this can also find solace in the analysis of this very dynamic provided by Mark.
On the occasion of this translation, I want to emphasise the achievement of this text in reaching the prominence that it has. Written as it was by a freelance writer and part-time teacher, its potency was such that the ideas have opened up the thinking of thousands and even shaped some part of the academy around the world. As this translation opens it up to even more people, read it and, if it resonates with you, accept it as an immediate invitation to help bring about a world that would be free. In Mark’s terms, it is a tool for hyperstition. Use it.
Macon Holt — Copenhagen, 2021
Mark Fisher: Kapitalistisk realisme — Findes der ikke noget alternativ?
Translation by Mathias Ruthner
Afterword by Macon Holt
Published in Danish by Antipyrine & Passive/Aggressive with permission from Zer0 Books, 5/2021.
Design: Mathias Kokholm
Print: Strandbygaard Grafisk