Capitalist Realism: is there no alternative?

Japhy Barrera discusses the idea of ‘Capitalist Realism’ and how we as socialists can overcome it.

Japhy Barrera, is a member of the YCL’s Birmingham district

Capitalist Realism can be defined as the pervasive subconscious belief that there is no viable alternative to the economic system of capitalism. Never before has a scheme been so coercive that it need not posit from an ideological perspective.

Capitalism sits idly while it is held as the worldwide default and standard. This concept, popularized by cultural theorist Mark Fisher in his landmark work of the same name, finds its origin within the fall of the Soviet Union.

For decades, capitalism and socialism were unanimously observed to be ideologies in conflict. This Cold War, headed by the United States and the USSR, went on for nearly 50 years. However, when the USSR (and symbolically the Berlin Wall) began to be destroyed in the 1980s, capitalism underwent a transformation.

The Soviet dissolution came accompanied by the ushering in of Reagan-Thatcher neoliberalism, and by no coincidence. With a demolished iron curtain came opportunists that conveyed a new kind of globalism; one of free trade, now without limits, for progress to continue without the perpetual threat of world war.

Now, of course, we know these proposals to be falsehoods. With the challenge to capitalism gone, we do not see universally beneficial trade relationships and rising living standards, but rather hegemonic neocolonialism that has placed the United States at the very top.

Newly sovereign states are no longer under the direct control of colonisers but are instead blackmailed into falling in line through coercive monetary incentives; this is the true purpose of the neoliberal idea.

Bourgeois elections are held in order to decide which faction of the ruling class gets the reigns of managing a capitalist system, rather than differing campaigns for material change. “I’m not a deeply ideological person. I’m a practical one,” said former UK Prime Minister David Cameron[2].

Cameron found himself in power directly after the devastating economic crash of 2008. Surely the failures of capitalism made apparent in the subprime mortgage crisis warranted great change.

One might then wonder why a self-described non-ideologue was elected. The answer is that the neoliberals framed the crisis, and its potential resolutions, through a purely capitalist lens.

According to them, no matter what the answer was to this gargantuan problem, it did not lie outside of capitalism. The world economy in which neoliberalism was predicated upon had imploded for all to see, but the root of the issue still managed to elude mainstream understanding.

This misunderstanding is what enables governments to respond to economic crises with corporate bailouts that are paid for by working-class taxpayers.

The free market that neoliberalism professes is put on hold until banks and other commercial interests feel satisfied with the extent to which their bureaucratic lackeys have shored up their losses.

This ‘austerity’ that politicians then impose on their people is not one brought on by an actual scarcity of money and resources, but rather a nefarious and fraudulent handling of them.

The widespread notion that this exploitative and corrupt system cannot be overcome, or that doing so would actually be disadvantageous, is arguably the greatest obstacle our movement faces.

The western ‘Overton Window‘ (theoretically, the range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time) currently includes only different parties which all represent capitalism. This dichotomy must be dispelled in favour of one based in truth, that of the working class and its opposing capitalists.

This class struggle must be apparent for all to see in the political and electoral mainstream.

Fisher proposes a method for dismantling fictitious political narratives. He highlights the Lacanian distinction between ‘the Real’ and reality.

Reality is a sort of facade, a set of distortions which are held to be true by the political establishment and its accompanying institutions; ‘the Real’ is the true nature underlying such reality.

By identifying the inconsistencies in the reality that neoliberal capitalism presents us, we can invoke a truth that is desperately needed within the ever-growing cesspool of falsehoods in which the current moment resides.

A campaign for objective truth in the form of socialism is how capitalist realism will meet its end. A replacement of postmodernism not with a return to immaterial metanarratives, but rather a factual telling of real systemic issues which all find their origin in monopoly-finance capital.

Albeit a daunting task, it is one that the 21st century left must take on if we want to see a pivot to change. This will prove especially true in the aftermath of the Coronavirus pandemic, to which this theory most precisely pertains.

To quote Fisher’s final remark of the book, “From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly everything is possible again.”

Rest in Peace Mark Fisher 1968-2017

Japhy Barrera


[1] Fisher, Mark (2009). Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?


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