Claude Lynch offers some take-home thoughts from the annual Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture.
Mark Fisher, or K-Punk in the blogosphere, was one of the breakout names in leftist political theory. The ideas he presented in his book Capitalist Realism, released almost ten years ago in 2009, have become more prescient with each passing year: that we blindingly, balefully accept a political status quo while it damns our mental health, our faith in institutions, and our faith in ourselves. Fisher was a visionary, but a troubled one. His second book, Ghosts Of My Life, dealt in a mix of pop culture references, philosophical concepts, and stories of Mark’s own depression. His search for systematisation – reasons why his melancholy couldn’t just be endemic – led him to reveal hard-hitting truths about modern society, and the difference between what’s real and the capitalist, corporatist, constructed “reality”.
But this search cursed Mark. Reading back the conclusion of Capitalist Realism leaves little room for hope – or as Mark might say, confidence. He argues that we should be searching for space to organise and rally against the inevitability of capitalism, because its increasing ubiquity makes it more prone to attack. But this feels disingenuous when the entire book has explained exactly why the pervasiveness of capitalism pacifies us to its scruples, so we see it as the only shape our society could ever take.
I would recommend Capitalist Realism and Ghosts of My Life to anyone; even for an ardent liberal, the books give food for thought on how to resolve our modern crises without victimising or attacking either side outright. But they also warn us: the escape from the presented inevitability of capitalism is a treacherous one. Perhaps that’s why Mark left us precisely as he began writing Acid Communism, destined to reveal how we might transcend capitalist realism, and Mark’s demons with it, once and for all.
In dedication to Mark’s premature death, Goldsmiths University hosts an annual memorial lecture in his name, reflecting on Mark’s work and aiming to build on his ideas. As convenor of the Visual Cultures MA, Mark gave Goldsmiths a modicum of his vast experience; it’s only natural Goldsmiths give something back.
This year, Jodi Dean presented in Mark’s name, with a lecture entitled “Capitalism is the End of the World”, focused on a literary critique of Doris Lessing with Mark’s ideas in mind. What was particularly striking about Dean’s lecture was the ideological angle it took. Mark often avoided making his political opinions plain in print; while more or less identifying as a communist, it would almost be easier to call him anti-capitalist, because his writing is accessible and agreeable to anyone who would call themselves the same. In contrast, Dean seemed to walk an orthodox Marxist line through the theories of capitalist realism, one that prided itself on the common use of phrases like “comrade” and “communist” as modern reference points for the radical left. Under question, Dean defended this on the basis that rebranding is a capitalist notion, designed to get consumers to buy the “new” version of a product that remains the same.
But Dean is wrong. Rebranding is not inherently capitalist, and it should not be dismissed. All Marxists – from those orthodox to reformist – understand that movements undergo periods of ebb and flow, that society is in flux. In this regard, rearticulation – the changing frame for ideas – is essential. It might be that we see windows of opportunity, in which a leftist movement can strike and attain mass support. Examples of this include the austerity crisis in Greece with Syriza, or Podemos’ breakout result in Spain following anti-austerity, anti-corruption protests. Occupy in the United States isn’t dissimilar. None of these movements – even Syriza, which itself had roots in communist parties – outwardly declared that they wished to institute communism.
Behind closed doors, things might be different: ideas exchanged between confidants, comrades even. But again, that phrase would find little clout in the streets. We learn to work with the vernacular of the day. Conservative language isn’t the same as it was in the 40s, so why should Marxist turns of phrase stay static either? Even Mark disavowed the idea, saying a “new language” is necessary in the latter-day capitalist status quo. Phrases are the images they evoke in the people we aim to persuade, not the images we want them to evoke. This isn’t to say proud-and-out communists can’t broadcast their status; the problem is that being too proud can often come across as glorifying the past, and denying that ideologies, as well as language, are in flux.
I want to think that Mark would have said the same – one of the ideas underpinning Capitalist Realism is that capitalism has become pervasive, not that it was always so. Capitalism has changed, our world has changed, we have changed with it. Note the popular millennial moniker “late capitalism” – a word that has undergone multiple iterations, each time with direr implications. Why should the challenges to that great behemoth stay the same? These aren’t the sorts of ideas you could air at Goldsmiths: overspill rooms taunting the voices in the lecture theatre proper that dare to dissent to the orthodox status quo, boys in beanies and girls with bleached bobs belying the stereotype and demonising the opposition, hidden behind a veil of anonymity, watching through a screen.
The memorial lecture ran into three overspill rooms, each home to a livestream of the lecture and the heckling produced by the dissonance between watcher and watched. The consequences of late capitalism – the dissociation, the identity politics, the inability to understand why we act how we do, the inability to truly think for ourselves. Heckle because the others are heckling, because your questioning “comrade” is the wrong sort of comrade. The dangers of late capitalism infect us all. We fall for groupthink and moralising over thoughtful discussion, and we wilfully misunderstand others’ arguments so we can put them down. We are all prone to this, we all dissociate so we might compartmentalise. Shouting someone down, shouting them into a box. It’s not something Mark would have engaged with. And it’s not something I want to engage with either. It’s the least you’d expect from a lecture founded on solidarity and – excuse my language – comradeship.
I want to end with a disclaimer, though. What I’ve written in this piece is arguably as egregious as Dean’s lecture; I’ve appropriated Mark for my own ends, to fit the ideology I like. This is the danger of martyrdom, but what’s more dangerous is focusing on how to read Fisher, instead finding new ways to apply the indisputable truths of his work. It’s worth remembering that the full title of Mark’s magnum opus was Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? That’s a question we’re still accountable for in his absence, and the answer won’t lie in his martyrdom. It lies in the new ideas that we can come up with in his wake. Stewing on the past was one of Mark’s biggest grievances. We can, and should, aspire to new alternatives. With confidence, if not hope; as equals, if not comrades. Here’s to you, K-Punk. Here’s to you.