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.

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The Lone-Brain State

I am so happy not to live in Texas where stories like the following are commonplace:

Despite Tesla’s best efforts, the Texas legislature this week opted not to pass a bill which would have allowed the electric automaker to sell cars directly to consumers. Instead, if Tesla wants to sell its highly revered vehicles in the lone star state, it looks like it’s going to have to do it through local franchise dealers, something the company has no intention of doing.

Unfortunately, this is a story we’ve seen play time and time again in many states over the past few years. Tesla, which prefers (read: demands) to sell its cars directly to consumers, is forced to lawyer up and fight against powerful and influential auto dealer lobbyists who want to protect their cash cows.. . . .

The following criticism from Texas state Representative Senfronia Thompson highlights the challenge Tesla is up against.

“It would have been wiser if Mr. Tesla had sat down with the car dealers first,” Thompson said.

Yes, if only Mr. Tesla came back from the dead to sit down for a nice little tete-a-tete with car dealers, perhaps then they could have hammered out a mutually beneficial agreement.

The losers in all of this, per usual, are the citizens of Texas who continue to have to jump through hoops if they want to purchase what Car and Driver recently called the “Car of The Century.”

Tesla, of course, is the electric car that now boasts it can go 250 miles on a single charge. This is well beyond the range that was previously thought possible for electric cars and now makes it reasonable to expect those cars to go from coast to coast, timing their stops at well-placed charging stations. The fact that the cars cost a small fortune makes them rare, but the latest news is that they will soon have a smaller model that sells for around $35,000, which is not out of reach for a much larger buying public.

The CEO, Elon Musk (not Mr. Tesla!) has insisted that the cars be sold directly to buyers in order to bypass dealers who would tack on unnecessary costs and he has announced that he will make his technology available to other car manufacturers — in order, no doubt, to make electric cars more available to a wider buying public, and to guarantee that there will be more charging stations in this country. He is also building a large plant in Sparks, Nevada (powered by solar energy) to manufacture his batteries in this country rather than to continue to import them from Japan, and the efficiency of his batteries continues to improve. This plant will not only employ a great many people, it will help to reduce the costs of his automobile. He is a very astute business man and is so far ahead of the rest of those who make and sell gas guzzlers that Car and Driver are not exaggerating when they call Tesla the “car of the century.”

But with moron legislators in Texas making decisions like the above, cars like the Tesla will not sell as rapidly as they should — given the benefits they bring with them to the environment — and this is, once again, a sign of short-term self-interest trumping wisdom; steps backwards rather than forward toward solutions to our environmental problems.