The subject of books by Mark Fisher and Nicholas Shaxson, and a major part of the BBC podcast series “This is Capitalism”, the issue of how our world is organised and what we perceive to be the aim and purpose of life remains as relevant and fascinating to us today as it was in the earliest days of human civilisation.
Mark Fisher’s thesis of Capitalist Realism is that we now accept and believe that Capitalism is as inevitable a part of life as the air that we breathe, and that we simply cannot imagine society run in any other way. A constant cycle of consumption and wage slavery is what we now think life is for. Having lost any concept of a higher good we have evolved to the state where we are sceptical and cynical about anything which claims to give life meaning over and above money. So, in a sense, money is the new religion. Our cynicism does not, however, extend to questioning whether this new value system is actually valid, whether we should in fact be striving constantly to earn and consume more, whether capitalism is an inevitable part of human life, whether it is doing us any good or not. We just accept these propositions uncritically, summed up in the Thatcherite phrase “there is no alternative”.
Meanwhile, the thesis goes, capitalism, far from being good for us, is causing the planet to die, humans to suffer mental health problems on an unprecedented scale, and life generally to become less and less pleasurable, even as we seek more and more pleasure.
The role of finance in all this is the focus of the Financialisation theory. This holds that as money has become the central god figure of our post religious philosophy we venerate the management and manipulation of money as we used to venerate oracles and holy texts. No longer are the manufacturers of goods and services the centre of the capitalist stage, now that role is reserved for the investment bankers and economists who read the tea leaves of financial flows and movements and manage and interpret the runes of foreign exchange, arbitrage, tax efficient investments and so on.
All fair enough, a reasonable analysis of 21st century US and UK state of affairs, albeit one which can be challenged and is by no means proven by these books, but there are serious weaknesses in the narrative. First, and most obviously, no solution or alternative is proposed. Communism is discussed and given short shrift as even worse than “late stage capitalism”. No other structures are considered. This leaves the reader leaning toward the view that perhaps there really is no alternative, which rather undermines the whole project and leaves simply a series of complaints and problems, loosely coupled to “capitalism”.
Second, there are some nice anecdotes, especially in Mark Fisher’s book, but many of them seem to have less to do with the veneration of money or even the capitalist structure of our society, and more to do with the diminishing attention spans and addiction to easy and lazy entertainment which has been encouraged and made possible by technology. Of course you could argue that smartphones, social media, etc have only come about because of capitalism, but that hardly seems to be the point.
So what should one do about the big issues facing the world, global warming, nuclear weapons, wealth inequalities, falling standards of concentration and (therefore) education and knowledge? Well, I don’t know, and neither do these authors. But at least people are thinking about the issues and flagging them up for others to ponder.
Worth reading and listening to, but not going to reveal any big truths I’m afraid.