Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism

Capitalist Realism (Zero Books, 2009) opens with the observation attributed to both Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Zizek that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. The very term 'capitalist realism' designates a pervasive  and oppressive atmosphere in which all alternatives seem to be, as Mark Fisher has it, precorporated: preemptively formatted and shaped according to "the desires, aspirations, and hopes set by capitalist culture" (9).

This atmosphere might be omnipresent (might, because the book's intended audience is the more affluent parts of the globe), but it is not omnipotent. Fisher identifies three points of politicization to challenge capitalist realism: ecology, bureaucracy, and mental health. It is the latter that, for me, stood out. Fisher's forceful argument that mental health needs to be on the anti-capitalist agenda makes the lack of such a demand among the many authors he cites much more obvious than it was. How has mental health not already come to the forefront with so many prominent Lacanians in the field of critique? Is it a distaste for the anti-psychiatry movement in the 1970s? Is it to avoid Jacques-Alain Miller's pathetic turn to, as Zizek calls it, "psychoanalysis in the city"? How had we, while re-discovering Deleuze the metaphysician, forgotten Guattari, the 'mental ecologist'?

Perhaps I'm exaggerating. But very few of today's prominent figures have refined how to address the relationship between mental health and capitalism as Fisher has; on the most basic level, he argues, we have accepted "the vast privatization of stress that has taken place over the last thirty years" (19). Moreover,
Considering mental illness an individual chemico-biological problem has enormous benefits for capitalism. First, it reinforces Capital's drive towards atomistic individualization (you are sick because of your brain chemistry). Second, it provides an enormously lucrative market in which multinational pharmaceutical companies can peddle their pharmaceuticals (we can cure you with our SSRIs). It goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation (37).
The causation, Fisher argues, is social organization in capitalism; the broad transformation of social life into either some form of work or consumption. Thus mental health, broadly speaking, needs to be politicized; the Left needs to show that, far from being an individual, private problem, mental health is a public cost of neoliberal capitalism that we're not willing to pay. We need, he argues, to take back the affective dimension(s) of social life.

Fisher (who also blogs) knows how to turn a phrase, coining incisive names for many of the tendencies that he identifies, such as business ontology, bureaucratic metastases, and the aforementioned precorporation. The only unfortunate turn is his use of the phrase "market Stalinism" which suggests  diffuse self-surveillance with an emphasis on the polished representation of bureaucratic services rather than a measure of the utility of actual services. While I certainly do not disagree that this tendency exists in capitalism, I think we ought to find a sharper phrase that captures it as endemic to neoliberalism rather than one that suggests an external ideological perversion. This is one of the crucial questions: how to capture the tendency of the diffuse irresponsibility common to bureaucracy, global capital, and parliamentarianism, without falling into traditional moralizing critique?

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