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Another Meta-review: Capitalist Realism

The bizarro anti-intellectualism that tends to manifest itself in leftist circles has always been paradigmatically represented by perspectives put out by the International Marxist Tendency (IMT)––whether they are shitting on BDS, claiming that the coup in Egypt several years ago wasn't really a coup, or claiming that physicists are liars––and yet again they've proved this anti-intellectualism with their recent hatchet-job on the late Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism. These days I try to ignore their embarrassing hot-takes but both a local comrade and a twitter mutual sent me this article and it's the kind of thing that would make anyone who actually read Fisher's book gape and face palm. It also demonstrates something significant about the IMT and groups like the IMT: they are incapable of critical thought, their critiques of positions that are not wholly their own rely on straw-person misrepresentations, and so their political lines about reality in general––the internal education they give to their members––is severely impoverished. If anything the IMT should teach us how not to think, how not to produce political critique.

Like the comrade and mutual who sent me this review I am not wholly in agreement with Fisher's argument in Capitalist Realism, though I am more sympathetic. In both Austerity Apparatus and my upcoming co-authored Methods Devour Themselves I draw on Fisher, finding his intervention useful, while also being careful to demarcate my position from his… Basically I perform what ought to be the method of doing historical materialist critique, and part of that requires reading a text seriously and extending the principle of charity despite the differences we might encounter. Fisher's extended essay is an attempt to chart the ideology that develops following capitalism's proclaimed eternal victory––the so-called "end of history" narrative––put forward, and reinforced through an entire host of ideological mechanisms, directly after the fall of the Eastern Bloc. Fisher seeks to provide a quick and accessible genealogy of this ideological phenomenon, what he calls "capitalist realism" because it asserts, and reinforces through common sense, that capitalism and reality are identical. In many ways Fisher's text is very useful because it does describe, and very accurately, the mechanics of this ideological phenomenon. In other ways, and as I have argued in both Austerity Apparatus and Methods, it falls prey to the very ideology it seeks to demystify, particularly in its uncritical use of the term "Stalinist", itself a product of the very cold war ideology that would produce "capitalism" and which plays a fundamental role in the latter half of Capitalist Realism. This critical engagement is not what is put forward by the IMT's review, and why would it be? The IMT accepts the same cold war ideological doctrine of "Stalinism"––it is in fact essential to Trotskyist discourse––that you would think they would be even more amenable to Fisher than myself. But apparently since Fisher is not a member of their club of cretins it doesn't matter that he valorizes some of their shitty concepts; if he's not writing a book that mainly refers to Marx and Trotsky his work must be dismissed.

This is in fact their core thesis: Capitalist Realism is garbage because all we need is Marx and Trotsky (and Lenin and some others, of course refracted only through Trotsky) to make sense of reality and anything else is "academic Marxism." Let's pause and consider the weirdness of this claim: Fisher is designated as an "academic Marxist" because he is producing a work that does not read like classic Marxism and Trotsky. That's the only thing that makes him, according to the boundaries drawn by this shitty review, an "academic Marxist"––which is apparently a bad thing, and worse than an organization that only organizes would-be academics and petty-bourgeois hacks in the NDP or Labour or what have you.

For the IMT, like other Marxist anti-intellectuals (who themselves aren't interested in actually encountering the hard-core of the proletariat), "academic Marxism" is a buzz word that is somewhat meaningless. For sure there is an academic Marxism, and more than that an academic anti-capitalism as a whole, that is impenetrable to the masses; their are Marxists within academia whose existence is premised on being separate from the masses. This is indeed a problem. Many of these academic Marxists, however, tend to share a lot of the same beliefs as the IMT (because, as I've argued before, a Trotskyist interpretation of reality has been successful in claiming academic ground), so the IMT doesn't really want to question these academics because to do so would be to open the door that questions their cherished beliefs about the Russian Revolution, Stalin, etc. Really "academic Marxism" is just a cipher for things that don't fit into the IMT's worldview because these things use words and thinkers they don't accept. "Academic" means "bad" and is wrong because it is not truly dialectically materialist, which is why the IMT's leading ideologues could declare the Big Bang theory wrong because of physicists with their fancy degrees.

This slur becomes completely incoherent when levelled at Mark Fisher. Whether or not we agree with Fisher's argument in Capitalist Realism it is completely erroneous to claim that it was an expression of "academic Marxism." Fisher did not produce this book within the hallowed halls of academia, but in fact outside of them, and the reader's ability to make sense of his arguments is in fact not dependent on rarified academic knowledge. The IMT review calls this extended essay "a confused jumble of academic jargon" and yet it is in fact far more accessible to the lay reader than Capital or anything written by the IMT's precious Trotsky. There is in fact much more jargon in the work of Marx and Engels, which often becomes even more difficult to appreciate due to all the time that has elapsed since they published, then there is in Capitalist Realism. The jargon of which the IMT is familiar is much more alienating than what Fisher wrote; Capitalist Realism is far more accessible than the texts the IMT upholds––this can be empirically proven simply by giving the first volume of Capital and Capitalist Realism to a member of the proletariat and asking what they better understand. Of course we should never argue that comprehensibility is the measure of quality––Capital is far superior to Fisher's extended essay, and I am certain that Fisher would agree, whether or not the latter is better understood––but this is precisely the kind of thinking that the IMT tries to promote and yet fails to justify based on the fact that their anti-intellectualism must denounce Capital for the very reason they denounce Fisher. The fact that they cannot even recognize that classical Marxism has its own jargon that will appear jumbled to proletarians who do not live in the 19th century, and that a text that is pretty easy to read is somehow jargon-laden because it does not read like Marx or Trotsky, demonstrates that they are living at a distant arm's reach from the masses.

Yeah it is the case these masses aren't reading Fisher, but it is also the case they aren't reading your Trot nonsense either for the same reason of "jargon"––you think "permanent revolution" is some non-jargon concept workers will just "get" because they also "get" all of your jargon about "Stalinism" immediately?

Representing a text accurately must be "academic Marxism" because the review begins by refusing to represent Fisher accurately. "The central idea of the book," the IMT review states in its first sentence "is that 'it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.'" But this quoted statement is not Fisher's, as the review reports, but in fact an older statement that Fisher himself quotes and that is attributed to Jameson. Indeed Fisher's conception of "capitalist realism" is built on an understanding that preceded Capitalist Realism by decades, a history upon which Fisher's extended essay locates itself within, and the IMT review cannot even get this history correct: it literally sees this critique as originating with Fisher because: a) it does not honestly represent the ways in which Fisher bases its thesis on a pre-existing thesis; b) it has no awareness of any theoretical work between Trotsky and the present.

And following this initial mistake of attribution, the IMT demonstrates that it is even more ignorant of thought by claiming that this Jameson quote about how it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism is completely identical to what Marx and Engels wrote about ideology in The German Ideology, namely that the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class. How is this identical, really? Both Fisher and Jameson would completely agree that dominant ideology produces hegemonic and "common sense" commitments; this is in fact their basis for making claims about the dominance of (what I have called elsewhere) the capitalist imaginary. But Marx and Engels, in their quote about the dominance of bourgeois ideology, were not specifically making claims about how it has become easier to imagine the end of world rather than the end of capitalism, let alone the conceptualization of "capitalist realism" Fisher draws from Jameson's statement. Fisher's claim, along with Jameson's statement, are only possible to make because of this Marxist understanding of ideology but they are not just this statement; they are in fact saying something more in that they are discussing the extension of this ideology to the current conjuncture. With the fall of the Eastern Bloc capitalism produced a very particular ideology about itself as the end of history, something that Marx and Engels did not and could not witness, where it posed itself as the consummation of reality and reality itself. Marx and Engels are not engaging with this "end of history" discourse when they wrote The German Ideology because it did not exist at the time and so they were not, as this shitty IMT review asserts, explaining "exactly the same thing back in 1845." The assertion is ludicrous: back in 1845 the conjuncture that resulted from the fall of the Eastern Bloc would have been unknown. Marx and Engels are definitely not saying "the same thing" because they are not engaging with this phenomenon. Of course, Marx and Engels are producing the tools needed to deal with this phenomenon and it is these tools that Fisher chooses to use, and he is quite open about this.

From these initial misrepresentations and dishonest conceptions of reality, the IMT's entire review of Fisher builds up a straw-person critique that is not worth discussing in any more detail since it is based on a complete fantasy. For example the review mocks the idea that "capitalism realism" has such a purchase on thought and that is easier for people to act as if the world will end than become anti-capitalists… but if capitalist realism is not a barrier in thought, then where are the people joining with the IMT's line? Why was Occupy, why were all the struggles they foolishly imagined were revolutionary, absorbed back into common sense ideology? And those struggles that broke through this common sense ideology––where were they? Oh yeah not charted on the Trotskyite barometer of proper revolution and so something the IMT cannot even speak to with authority. But in case the point that Fisher was trying to make was not a nihilist one, but only that militants need to take seriously the ways in which capitalism claims reality as its own. This IMT review seems to think that he is asserting nihilism, that he thinks that rebellion is far from impossible, when this is in fact not at all what he argued. Indeed the IMT claims that Fisher is arguing that "everyone in society has been irretrievably won over to capitalist ideology." In point of fact he does not say this anywhere. Rather, his point is that "capitalist realism" is such that it makes being won over to capitalist ideology appear more normative, more compelling, and that we need to find a way to seriously rupture from this imaginary.

Of course the IMT cannot take Fisher's critiques seriously because it itself is invested in the very imaginary Fisher attempts to critique, an imaginary Fisher also cannot escape from. Why has the IMT consistently made wrong claims about rebellion, and then refused to critique or even think through these wrong claims? Why has the IMT refused to understand that its understanding of Marxism is decades out of date, that if historical materialism is a science the IMT lives in its Newtonian moment, and that everything it has claimed about reality is empirically wrong? Why does the IMT refuse to engage honestly with texts that are not IMT texts? Because it does not represent an ideology that can challenge the very "capitalist realism" it likes to pretend does not exist. The IMT in many ways is in fact a part of Fisher's "capitalist realism" in that it valorizes "end of history" practices by participating, while claiming to see right through the farce, in the very mechanisms (electoral politics treated as a point of entry) that ensure bourgeois rule.

The author of the critique then goes down a rabbit trail of cherry picking at Fisher's understanding of political economy. Considering Capitalist Realism was not a work on political economy, it's a pretty easy and cheap move to make this the focus of an already badly focused critique. Obviously Fisher is not a political economist, which is why he was quite sparing when it came to political economy in the book, but it is not as if his discussion of the crisis of "credit" came from nowhere; nor is it a very good argument to basically say "haha you're so stupid Fisher it's really about overproduction." An entire host of Marxist political economy works written on the crisis did indeed foreground credit and finance and, while I agree that this is only part of the story, claiming that such an analysis is simply "wrong" because it was actually about "overproduction" is itself facile. For example, the mortgage crisis in the US that precipitated the 2008 crisis was not primarily about overproduction. The truth is that the best Marxist political economy analyses of this crisis looked at all of the mechanics of capitalism that led to its emergence, from finance to overproduction to debt, and were able to weave them together. Robert Biel's The Entropy of Capitalism is probably one of the best analyses and it would take issue with the IMT's "gotcha" of Fisher.

But we can really see how poor a reviewer the writer of this critique is when, at the end, they take issue with this statement of Fisher's: "one of the left's vices is its endless rehearsal of historical debates, its tendency to keep going over Kronstadt or the New Economic Policy rather than planning and organizing for a future that it really believes in." While I do believe that historical debates are important, especially since capitalist realism itself enforces a refusal to actually learn from our revolutionary history, Fisher is also correct: too much time is spent by Marxists LARPing rather than building a sustainable movement. But the IMT warps this passage into being about the dialectic of theory and practice:

In a certain sense, Fisher is right here; as Lenin said, "theory without action is sterile", and we cannot allow ourselves to be side-tracked by interesting historical discussions simply for their own sake. We are not academics, but revolutionaries. […] But that particular quote from Lenin continues: "action without theory is blind".

Leaving aside the claim that "we are not academics, but revolutionaries" made by a group that has opposed revolutionary militancy at every level, that prefers to enter bourgeois parties, and that benefits from the academic hegemony of Trotskyism, this point is completely off the mark. The entire point of Capitalist Realism was to theorize the dimensions of an "end of history" ideology, and this statement about history is not about abandoning theory in favour of practice. In fact, the reviewer spends most of their time mocking Fisher for doing theory––calling it "academic", "jargon", "incomprehensible drivel", "postmodern"––because this theory doesn't read precisely like a dry Trotskyite treatise written with jargon from the early 20th century.

Despite its claims to the contrary, the IMT does not like theory and is generally opposed to theoretical practice. In its mind theoretical work is simply dogmatically repeating what Marx, Trotsky, and those parts of Lenin that agree with Trotsky say and nothing more. Its cadre are not interested in following the logical trajectory of historical materialist theory in thinking through developments of ideology which is precisely theoretical labour… The very thing that Marx and Engels did, that Lenin did, and that Trotsky (though erroneously) also did. They can't even think as creatively as their misguided prophet, but I suppose to do so would make them "academics" based on how they have defined academic Marxism.

Now it may indeed be the case that, as the IMT reviewer asserts, Fisher does not "suggest something practical for anti-capitalists to do going forward" and only "offers the modern revolutionary nothing but confusion and frustration." One of the problems of the book, as I have already contended, is that in attempting to explain the meaning of the "end of history" ideology it also becomes lost in this ideology, much like the Frankfurt School became lost in its pessimistic understanding of the "culture industry" and "one-dimensionality". But Fisher never claimed to be writing a book that would be anything more than an excavation of this ideological problematic; only a very lazy reading would imagine that it is a useful critique to complain that the book was not the one the reviewer wanted to be written. Moreover, since the IMT has never suggested anything practical for anti-capitalists either, and its entire theory and practice is a combination of opportunism and understandings that have been proven wrong by history, the reviewer is not in a position to make this criticism. Fisher never claimed to be a thinker offering a way forward (though it is quite telling that at the end of his life he praised the work of intellectuals who did try to offer such solutions by defending the necessity of the party), unlike the IMT that has consistently offered the worse perspectives to the masses and have demonstrated the poverty of these perspectives in their practice. While I maintain that Fisher's work should be critiqued, particularly when it does uncritically mimic Trotskyist conceptions of the former Eastern Bloc, it is still much more critical than any theoretical work the IMT has put forward to date.


Addendum: During a reread I was struck by the IMT reviewer's use of the word "schizophrenic" as a slur to mock what this reviewer refused to understand. While I am certain that the IMT kind of Marxist will accuse me of "post-modernism" for bringing this up, one cannot help but feel that such a slur is similar to using "retarded" and it definitely, for the same reason, comes across as terribly chauvinist. I have known people who have struggled with schizophrenia and it is utterly callous to use the word that describes this disability as synonymous with "nonsense"––even if we were to use it regardless of the ableist dimension it could not be used as such a definition in any accurate manner, hence demonstrating that it is being used pejoratively without care for people who are actually schizophrenic. On the one hand this is callous because Fisher, although not a schizophrenic, suicided due to mental illness and its use by the reviewer demonstrates a complete lack of understanding when it comes to the problem of mental illness. On the other hand, if we actually care about the masses, many of whom who do suffer from mental illnesses promoted by capitalism, it is utterly callous and anti-mass to use the terms of their malady as slurs.