Entertainment editor Seán Enda Donnelly talks about the nature of art and entertainment in our modern society through the lens of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism (2009) and transgressive art.
In 1848, a year wracked by revolution throughout the globe and in their native Germany, philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto. The political pamphlet was a summary of their theories regarding the nature of politics and society. It traces human history through the lens of class struggle and criticises the capitalist system. Since its publication much has changed, but much has stayed the same. We currently live in what German economist Werner Sombart called ‘late-stage capitalism’ or simply ‘late capitalism.’ Sombart first wrote of late capitalism over a century ago, but the term has since become a shorthand for the various failings, both tragic and comedic, of the modern capitalist system. Writing in The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels argue that capitalism, ‘has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.’
Late capitalism can be used as a synonym for ‘capitalist realism,’ itself a play on the phrase ‘socialist realism.’ Where socialist realism was the official, state-sanctioned and state-governed art as practised in the Soviet Union, capitalist realism originated in the writings of Michael Schudson, and later, Mark Fisher’s book of the same name. Schudson used the term to describe advertising trends in the mid-1980s that promoted private consumption over the common good. Though their moral and aesthetic standards are different, socialist realism and capitalist realism require that these demands be upheld. Schudson outlines the attributes of successful socialist realism as follows:
1. Art should picture reality in simplified and typified ways so that it communicates effectively to the masses.
2. Art should picture life, but not as it is so much as life as it should become, life worth emulating.
3. Art should picture reality not in its individuality but only as it reveals larger social significance.
4. Art should picture reality as progress toward the future and so represent social struggles positively. It should carry an air of optimism.
5. Art should focus on contemporary life, creating pleasing images of new social phenomena, revealing and endorsing new features of society and thus aiding the masses in assimilating them.
Two decades later, Mark Fisher expanded this idea to encompass all forms of mass media, not just advertising, to illustrate his thesis that, ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.’ Under capitalist realism there is no space to imagine conceivable alternatives to capitalism, as the free market has since been applied to all forms of governance; there is only individual responsibility, not collective responsibility, for improving one’s circumstances. Capitalist realism cannot simply be limited to advertising or culture, as Fisher writes, but instead refers to, ‘a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.’
Our transition into capitalist realism began in the 1980s and, in Fisher’s view, solidified with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. As communism faded into the ether capitalism receded into the background, transformed from an ideology into an environment. Every institution, including healthcare and education, should be run as a business. Its ubiquity has permeated every aspect of our society, including our culture. The cultural sphere has not necessarily gone extinct under capitalist realism. On the contrary, it has bloomed to encompass the social realm. Everything, as the theorist Frederic Jameson writes, ‘from economic value and state power to practices and to the very structure of the psyche itself…can be said to have become “cultural” in some original and yet untheorized sense.’
Fellow cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek draws a concrete line between reality and that which is known as “the Real” to illustrate this increasing sense of dissonance under capitalism. Reality, Žižek writes, is ‘the social reality of the actual people involved in interaction, and in the productive process; while the Real is the inexorable “abstract” spectral logic of Capital which determines what goes on in social reality.’ If everything is cultural, as Jameson attests, and subject to the whims of capitalist unreality as Žižek claims, then what can be said of culture produced in a late capitalist world? Does it live in ignorance of the reality – or the Real – that we live in, or does it tacitly acknowledge – or even critique – capitalist realism?
Certain works in the transgressive fiction genre, most notably Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991), Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (1993) and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996), push against the norms of contemporary capitalist society through the graphic depiction of taboo subjects, antisocial acts and nihilistic themes. In an example of capitalist realism’s appropriation of even virulently anti-capitalist works, all three have been adapted into major blockbusters. Yet the critique is still present.
Ellis’s American Psycho is a scathing indictment of the 1980s “yuppie” or “young urban professional” subculture. Patrick Bateman, the main character, embodies the excesses of the subculture but is in many ways trapped inside it. As Matthew Kavanagh writes, Bateman cannot imagine an alternative, an elsewhere, an otherwise, beyond what Kavanagh refers to as a ‘brute (and brutal) positivism.’ Therefore, trapped in the world that birthed him, he is compelled to act out his antagonism in gratuitous displays of violence. A similar motif dominates Palahniuk’s Fight Club, wherein the displays of violence are organised into weekly meetings (the titular ‘Fight Club’) in an effort to liberate themselves from the bland consumer culture that Bateman embodies, and the white-collar work environment lampooned in works like Mike Judge’s Office Space (1999). In the 1990s the office environment was the most popular visual analogue to the sense of entrapment under late capitalism; indeed the most seminal escapist work of the period, The Matrix (1999) directed by the Wachowskis, depicts the dystopic simulation as a bland but ‘respectable’ software company. Office cubicles are like prison cells, segregating people from one another.
This palpable sense of anxiety with this system is not merely limited to middle-class existence. For example, Mark Renton’s ‘Choose Life’ monologue in Trainspotting reflects a similar dissatisfaction with life, openly questioning at its end why he would want to choose a long, belaboured existence based on materialism, consumption and the nuclear family. Like the aforementioned examples, Mark Renton finds escape in extreme circumstances when confronted by the malaise of working-class poverty. More recent examples, and one favoured by Mark Fisher in his introduction to Capitalist Realism, is the 2009 adaptation of P.D. James’s Children of Men. The film depicts a dystopia already in progress, a world wherein coffee chains and concentration camps exist in tandem, prompted by an unexplained pandemic of global infertility. Most hauntingly it is a world not too removed from our own. But it is these themes of ‘sterility’ that Fisher finds to be evocative of our current cultural wasteland. There is no escape, no alternative; merely the slow cancellation of the future as capitalist realism takes its hold. T.S. Elliot’s poem The Waste Land – a significant influence on the film – is invoked by Fisher as he writes, ‘The new defines itself in response to what it already established; at the same time, the established has to reconfigure itself in response to the new…the exhaustion of the future does not even leave us with the past. Tradition counts for nothing when it is no longer contested and modified. A culture that is merely preserved is no culture at all.’
In 1843, Marx asserted the need for a ‘ruthless critique of all that exists’ claiming that it was necessary in a blueprint for the future, specifically a post-capitalist society. Radical movements would need to subject themselves to such criticism in order to achieve their vision. Capitalist realism seeks to cut off all possible substitutes to it. In upholding critical thinking – rather than passive engagement – with culture under capitalist realism, there may still be room for an alternative despite all appearances to the contrary.