Is there no alternative?

I heard it yet again the other day: ‘if you’re not a socialist by age 19, you have no heart. If you’re not a capitalist by age 29, you have no brain.’

What fascinates me about this ‘truism’ – and those who spout it – is its sense of utter resignation. Not only are we to regard as peripheral or jejune all the impulses, desires and preferences deemed valuable through their association with the heart, the implication is also that we’re supposed to accept that there is indeed no alternative – that the ‘right’ life consists of a single predetermined trajectory from the youthful sentimentalist folly of socialism to adult capitalist rationalism.

This uncritical position has been internalised not just by individuals approaching their 30′s, but also by so-called ‘oppositional’ groups like Greenpeace and the WWF, originally set up to challenge the hegemonic ravages of capitalism; they have now accepted the ‘only game in town’ hypothesis, tempering their activism until it amounts to little more than a PR campaign for big business.

There is a profound tension here: capitalism (relatively unrestrained market forces, if you prefer) sells itself as the most flexible, effective way to obtain all that we can possibly imagine, beyond any arbitrary limitations imposed by the specificities of time or place…and yet the logic of the market simultaneously permeates everything, until it becomes a kind of view from nowhere, the only way for us to relate to each other and participate in the social and material worlds. The inimitable Deleuze and Guattari say it best in their ‘A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’: capitalism deterritorializes all flows; it allows the exchange of anything and everything to flow freely across the surface of the earth while shunning any traditions, codes or laws that might limit this flow. In doing this, however, a capitalist axiomatic takes hold of and subsumes all our interactions until it seems as though there is no outside to capitalism at all.

For Deleuze and Guattari, both socialists of a libertarian strain, this observation, far from inducing despair, merely calls for new tactics, and much of their collective work explores such exotic possibilities for resistance and change as micropolitics, lines of flight, war machines and creating Bodies without Organs.

For one of their most adroit interlocutors however, the legendary renegade philosopher-occultist Nick Land, there is no possibility for resistance – capitalism has become some sort of self-perpetuating, ever-accelerating cybernetic feedback system that, virus-like, infects everything in its path. We should submit to its dark will.

Land co-founded the entirely unlikely Cyber Culture Research Unit at the prestigious Warwick University in the mid-90′s; their university-funded activities included producing collaged texts of continental philosophers, William Burroughs and binary code, theorising the voodoo / occult underpinnings of markets, composing abrasive electronic music and, ostensibly, consuming inhuman doses of psychedelics as often as possible. Land’s professional career was cut short by his disavowal of academia in 1997 and subsequent ‘disappearance’, but during those few years he produced a singularly provocative body of work that is becoming increasingly influential within the burgeoning speculative realist movement, culminating in the recent publication of the 666 page compilation of his ‘hyperstition’ (Land’s term for his blend of Lovecraftian theory-fiction), ‘Fanged Noumena’.

As interest in his work grows, Land himself has reappeared in a slightly modified form, filtering his perennial interests in Deleuze and Guattari, cyberpunk and chaos magick through the language of the free market. Topics on his new blog include everything from a bizarre concern about peak humans (what do we do once our capacity to create highly dense living spaces exceeds our capacity to increase the human population) to a much more predictable cheerleading of the Singularity. Whether his new work is partly intended as parody or, instead, Land has merely spent so long trawling the voodoo depths of hyper-capitalism that he has simply become a parody of his earlier self, his recent writing perfectly captures the disturbing absurdities that result from taking free market ideology to its radical conclusion while buying into the assumption that there really is no longer an outside.

Co-founder of the CCRU, theorist and writer Mark Fisher, challenges all this in his newly-published ‘Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative?’

In Fisher’s words, capitalist realism is ‘the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it’. From this starting point, he proceeds to explore, through everything from popular films like Children of Men to the theory du jour of Žižek and Badiou, the symptoms of late capitalism and, more vitally, why there is so little resistance to it. Fisher’s ‘realism’ is the ironic distance of postmodern culture – a weary, ‘nothing too serious’ cynicism that staves off totalitarianism and fanaticism and is also a capitulation to the ‘view from nowhere’ of the market: a perennial Hobbesian each against all.

This desensitization to the world results in what Robert Pfaller calls ‘interpassivity’: we collectively acknowledge how our behaviour affects us in a cynical way that performs our reaction for us, allowing us to avoid change. For example, the animated films Wall-E and Avatar perform our resistance to the destruction of the natural world, also acknowledging the negative effects this has for each of us. This then leaves us free to destroy the natural world and wallow in the consequences, this all despite the fact that, as Žižek has observed, ‘cynical distance is just one way to blind ourselves to the structural power of ideological fantasy: even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them.’

The loss of value caused by this cynical distancing results in a disenchanted world view Fisher calls ‘reflexive impotence’; a tacit acceptance of the impoverishment of capitalist realism that is characterised by ‘depressive hedonia’: the compulsive seeking out of dulling consumer pleasures (comfort foods, mainstream television, video games, narcotics) at the expense of all else, even though there remains a lingering feeling that something important is missing.

So how do we resist something so insidious? Neither, according to Fisher, by appealing to sentiment nor by questioning the specifics of capitalist ideology. These critiques are easily absorbed because ‘the role of capitalist ideology is not to make an explicit case for something in the way that propaganda does, but to conceal the fact that the operations of capital do not depend on any sort of subjectively assumed belief.’

What we have to do then is to challenge the very assumption that capitalism is indeed some kind of post-ideological view from nowhere, that it’s ‘just how things are’. In part, we do so by exposing the hypocrisies of its functioning, specifically, how it depends on what it disavows. For instance, says Fisher, observing the effects of the move away from state intervention and towards the neoliberal business model in his native UK, capitalism cannot work without bureaucracy. It also requires constant coercion in the form of marketing, advertising and PR. Additionally, it breeds a generalised malaise – as well as an increase in serious psychological dysfunction (see, for instance, Oliver James’s ‘The Selfish Capitalist’) – that runs wholly counter to the happy, healthy, freely exchanging rational subject always presented as the inexorable result of freeing markets.

We also need, according to Fisher, to rethink revolutionary politics: we cannot continue to be satisfied with mere reaction but must also move to create alternatives, even if these are merely prefigurative, alternatives to capitalism that challenge its claims of ubiquity and in doing so undermine its hold on our collective imagination.

This project might be hard, but at the same time, as Fisher concludes, ‘the long, dark night of the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity. The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism.’

Through this hole we can already see some distinctly possible – and socialist, in its best, most radically democratic sense – alternatives.