Capitalist Realism

I am reading a short book with the above title written by Mark Fisher. The author is a teacher in England who is both well read and articulate, though a bit enamored of postmodern jargon. His argument is a fascinating blend of insight and overstatement.

An example of his tendency to overstatement is his sweeping generalization about the inevitable destruction of the planet by “capitalist realism.” As he would have it, “. . .capitalism is by its very nature opposed to any notion of sustainability.” This claim flies in the face of the endeavors of such people as Elon Musk and the growth, world-wide, of the renewable energy movement which is clearly driven by the profit motive. The fact is that alternative energy is a step in the direction of saving, not destroying, the planet. And it is a step taken by capitalists — and those governments that support capitalism.

Fisher also conflates religion and superstition, almost in passing, as do so many intellectuals. The two are not the same, though in the case of many devotees the differences may be hard to make out. Superstition is a crutch the fearful lean upon to help them make it through the day and it attempts to explain the mysterious in simple terms that can be understood by the tiniest minds. It is above all things self-regarding.  Religion, on the others hand — at least in principle — requires faith in a Being greater than the self and demands constraints on impulse and a willingness to sacrifice self-interest in the name of sympathy, if not love, for others. In a word, religion demands that its followers do their duty; superstition demands nothing.

But when it comes to the topic of education, which is close to Fisher’s heart, the man has important things to say. Much of what he says rings true and echoes my own experience and that of the folks I have read and spoken with who are also concerned about the sorry state of education in our day.

Fisher worries about what he calls the “post-disciplinary framework” within which education finds itself today, a time when the very notion of discipline has been lost in the wave of education’s gobble-de-gook about “self-esteem” that leads invariably toward a sense of entitlement in the spoiled child. He worries, as do I, that education has also succumbed to the dreaded business model and is now all about profit and loss rather than about the students and their ability to function in an increasingly complicated world. He has also discovered the truly disturbing effects of the fascination on the part of the young with electronic toys and the social media. He is aware, as are growing numbers of people (backed by several recent studies) that they are addictive and that they stand between the young and their ability to use their minds in a thoughtful and productive way — a way that will benefit them and those around them. He draws upon first-hand experience to help us understand the pitfalls of the digital age in which these young people live and thrive:

“Ask students to read more than a couple of sentences and many — and these are A-level students mind you — will protest that they can’t do it. The most frequent complaint teachers hear is that it is boring. It is not so much the content of the written material that is of issue here; it is the act of reading itself that is deemed ‘boring.’ What we are facing here is not the time-honored teenage torpor, but the mismatch between a post-literate ‘New Flesh’ that is ‘too wired to concentrate’ and the confining, concentrational logics of decaying disciplinary systems. To be bored means simply to be removed from the communicative sensation-stimulus matrix of texting, YouTube and fast food; to be denied, for a moment, the constant flow of sugary gratification on demand. . . .

“The consequences of being hooked into the entertainment matrix is twitchy, agitated, impassivity, an inability to connect or focus. Students’ incapacity to connect current lack of focus with future failure, their inability to synthesize time into coherent narrative, is symptomatic of more than mere demotivation . . . . What we in the classroom are now facing is a generation born into that ahistorical, anti-mnemonic blip culture — a generation, that is to say, for whom time has always come ready-cut into digital micro-slices.”

In a word, the new electronic toys to which the young have become enslaved are standing between them and the possession of their own minds. They cannot possibly become educated citizens who are involved and able to creatively address the problems they will indubitably face in the future. Worse yet,

“By contrast with their forbears in the 1960s and 1970s, British students today appear to be politically disengaged . . .[Moreover, they] seem resigned to their fate.”

Fisher blames it all on capitalism and he may be right. I suspect he is. But whether he is right or wrong about the cause of the inability of today’s young to become responsible participants in their own future what he says is disturbing, to say the least. And while many will dismiss his claims on his inability to understand the young — the latest version of the generation-gap — we must remind ourselves that he is himself young and much involved with others younger even than himself. And, more to the point, he just may be right. It’s time to stop shooting the messenger and think about what he is saying.


11 thoughts on “Capitalist Realism

  1. I agree with your synopsis Hugh.

    I would add one thing…
    And I know this sounds way off base in our usual logical look at how society works and more importantly how it should work…
    Are we simply overlooking the idea that someone or several beings that have great influence in our political and social systems, is manipulating humanity to be as devoid of questioning as possible? The system, as it stands, seems to direct only a chosen few into the realms of knowledge and power, while the rest of us are simply sent down the conveyor belt of production and consumerism (the latter designed to keep is producing)?

    If that be the case, maybe the bigger question should be, Why?

  2. (Re “superstition,” maybe Fisher mistakenly uses this term instead of “supernatural,” as in that which we can’t see/hear/feel, and a term which I think does apply to religion?)

    Both Fisher and you verbalize what I feel about digital “toys” (except you two are more eloquent than me). It’s not only students, though, it’s practically all youth, and most adults (who maybe have lost the capacity to learn and grow). These toys really are addictive. I see it, sadly, in my own family. Capitalism is a driver behind it. While we’re all endowed with free will, children and young adults are innocents and don’t have the capacity yet to exercise free will, and we adults are encouraging in them apathy and indolence, both political and otherwise. (The late protest singer Phil Ochs felt the same way about recreational drugs and how they siphoned off activist energy, when he saw them entering the picture in the late ’60s.) Electronic toys and social media may not be physically deadly, but they can be, and are, intellectually deadly.

  3. Hugh, the title is interesting. Based on my experience, when capitalism trains it focus on short term gain, it can easily cause results that are harmful to long term profits. When a college focuses on margin (whether they are for-profit or non-profit), they spend money that may not enhance their mission. They want fannies in seats, whether you learn may become less important.

    From where I sit, organizations make more money serving their customer well, regardless of the product or service. When a company wants to milk as much profit of every customer bowler, that is problem long term.

    You and I have chatted that America is not a pure capitalistic economy. We have several social underpinnings reacted to trading and governance as well as safety net programs like Medicare, Sociaj Security, Medicaid, unemployment benefits, etc.


    • The problem may be less about capitalism than it is about materialism –which has killed the spirit. But, then, capitalism enhances materialism and helps it to grow. It certainly doesn’t bring out the best in us humans!

  4. Very thought-provoking post, my friend. While I have been aware for some time of the decline in the quality of education in this country, I hadn’t traced it to capitalism, but rather to the greed and laziness of parents, and even some educators. However, I suppose that the greed and laziness of parents can be traced to capitalism. This has become what I often refer to as a ‘me-istic’ society. Rather like expression from a couple of decades ago, “whoever has the most toys, wins”. But then one must wonder where we are headed? Who will be intelligent enough in the coming decades to run governments, financial institutions, and businesses. And will there ever be truly great authors again? If students cannot even focus long enough to read a book, how will they ever manage to write one?

    Have a good weekend, dear Hugh!

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  6. No analysis of capitalism is complete without analyzing the consumers. Capitalism follows consumer demand, and the point is that the problems with the psychology of the consumer base will remain even if you somehow dismantled capitalism. Capitalism itself is a neutral force.

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