In 2009, Mark Fisher’s book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? was released. Since then, it has become a key talking point in movements for social and climate justice, as well as academic and philosophical circles.
While the book is very much worth reading, the ideas it discusses have also increasingly made their way into mainstream discourse. Because of this I wanted to put together an introduction to this concept for those who keep hearing the term, but haven’t yet had a chance to dig deeper. I hope it helps, and do pick up a copy from your local library or independent bookstore to learn more.
What is Capitalist Realism?
While explored in more depth in Fisher’s book, the core tenet of capitalist realism is the way in which capitalism sustains itself; by perpetuating the idea that there is no alternative. This idea has been traced back to Frederic Jameson, and popularised by Slavoj Žižek through the phrase which Fisher refers to:
it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism
Capitalism hasn’t always been the dominant political and economic system, one only needs to look a few centuries back to find a now-defunct feudal system of kings believed to be appointed by God. But what capitalism is particularly good at is presenting itself as the natural and necessary order of things, suggesting that there can be no other way, robbing people of the belief or imagination of looking for alternatives. A Margaret Thatcher speech from 1980, in which she declared “there’s no such thing as society”, sums this up perfectly, and went on to become a key argument of the neoliberal capitalism we see today. As Fisher states it’s
the widespread sense 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.
The rise of neoliberal capitalism, and therefore capitalist realism, also led to stark rises in inequality, reduced workers’ rights, and paved the way for austerity and widespread poverty. When capitalism has no alternative, there can be no attempts to achieve liberation or dignity for all, because there are no other systems to turn to. Any discussion of an alternative is seen as either naive or an impossible fantasy. As neoliberalism prevailed in Global North governments, capitalist realism grew stronger, claiming that capitalism is the only viable way to construct society. It’s not a political choice, but fundamental to human existence. This also suggests that resulting oppressions caused by capitalism such as racism, ableism or anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, are part of the ‘natural order’ too (something which is fundamentally untrue).
The second issue is also how capitalist realism allows resistance to capitalism to be absorbed into a larger capitalist model. Often, expressions of resistance end up becoming commodified and sold back to people, therefore perpetuating capitalism themselves. Think of movies like The Hunger Games or Wall-E, a film made by Disney showing how rampant consumerism has destroyed the planet, from one of the largest corporations on the planet who want viewers to be their consumers. Resistance and protest are taken and repackaged, not as ways to find alternatives, but as part of conversations within the capitalist system on capitalism’s own terms, without actually doing any meaningful work for change.
Capitalist realism…is more like a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.
So can things change?
The problem of capitalist realism is that it feels so inevitable, such an inescapable present, that it seems nothing can be done. But that is part of capitalist realism’s end goal, and we can only achieve change if we know this going forward.
For Žižek, a fundamentally anti-capitalist author and activist, it is important to realise that in a certain sense there is ‘no escape’ from capitalism. From this perspective, to be anti-capitalist means not to be outside of capitalism or even to try to get outside of it, but to oppose the very structure that we are inside and to be honest about our complicity in it.
Something that’s vital to remember, is that capitalism is already broken. Climate breakdown, the rise of unionised workforces and industrial action, and cost of living crises around the world can’t be ignored. Meanwhile, examples of neoliberalism and trickle-down economics failing come up again and again through staggering wealth gaps and the breakdown of services such as the UK water system, are clear for all to see. Everywhere you turn, it’s obvious that the system is damaged.
Many of these things are scary for ordinary people to live through. But Fisher also argued that these crises offer potential. Each issue is a crack in the facade, a way to expose that capitalism is not the natural order of being, but a collective fantasy that can be dismantled.
Concrete demands for change
Because capitalism is so pervasive, it’s argued that it’s important to make tangible demands for change beyond utopian dreaming. I personally believe there is space for both. Concrete demands are starting to appear, as seen in the demands of unions and activists around the world. It’s important for these demands to be clear: no new oil and gas licenses, specific pay rises and pensions, or increased taxation of billionaires, for example.
However, because alternatives aren’t set in stone, it’s also vital not to limit our imagination. Just as climate justice can’t be the same world but greener, building a new world must allow space for radical dreaming and the input of many diverse communities, in order to achieve true liberation for everyone.
The system of capitalism is not just causing crises, it’s in crises itself, and we can harness that opportunity to build something new. I would argue that this is where the idea of non-reformist reform comes in. We must act now where we can (for instance, climate action), but we must also be flexible in forming the future. We must be malleable to the needs of marginalised people and open to community and collaboration, in order to not replicate the system of supremacy breaking down around us but instead replace it with a truly just and radical alternative.
The longing for what appears to be impossible compels us, in Che Guevara’s aphoristic command, to be realistic by demanding the impossible. This revolutionary realism, as I would call it, contrasts sharply with what cultural critic Mark Fisher describes as capitalist realism…
…capitalist realism maintains the prevalent and depressive ‘belief’ that all hope is a ‘dangerous illusion’ today. It renders any revolutionary desire for justice—social, global, economic, ecological—not merely ‘unrealistic’ but naively, if not madly, misguided…
…In this situation, the injunction to be realistic by demanding the impossible requires immeasurable ‘experiments in imagining otherwise,’ in feminist writer Lola Olufemi’s formulation.
Capitalist realism may try to say it’s the only realistic political-economic order, but Fisher himself argued that what counts as realistic or possible is defined by a series of political determinations. Essentially, all of these things are choices. The idea to run everything, from healthcare to education to art, with business models, has been a political choice. It is a choice to see people as consumers and units of labour, creating things for others to consume, instead of as human beings worthy of dignity. It is a choice to view expansion and GDP as indications of success over wellbeing.
These choices have framed the way people see the world. This lens of consumption, Fisher argues, has blunted our imaginations, as we absorb the identity of consumers into how we view ourselves. But they are not instilled as the ways we have to live forever. We’ve been trained to see ourselves as consumers first, not citizens or political actors. That doesn’t mean it always has to be this way.
After all, Capitalist Realism became such a popular text because it gave language to a widespread feeling. Each political struggle that pushes against this, each solid demand and each dream of something different, are still reasons to be hopeful. Each one pushes us towards an alternative option.
There is no alternative that’s already fully formed. We don’t know what it looks like yet. We have lots of great theories for thinking about it, dismantling what we have, and creating constraints on what could be.
But just because we don’t know what the alternative is, doesn’t mean that there isn’t one, and it doesn’t mean that we can’t work together to find it. But the actual alternative is not going to be a genre of music or a type of clothing or a section that you can shop on Amazon, right?
Fisher chose to end his book on a note of hope. It’s now up to us to grab hold of it, and prove him right.
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.