Sam: You start your book, Capitalist Realism, with Frederick Jameson’s observation—‘it’s more difficult to envisage the end of the world than the end of capitalism’. With the recent mobilisations of 2010 and 2011 at home and particularly abroad in Greece, Spain, Nigeria and the Middle East—do you see these as representing a crack in ‘capitalist realism’?
Mark: I think in a certain sense there has been a crack, but in another sense no. I joked as I was writing the book that capitalism would be finished before the book was because of the crisis since 2008; but things haven’t turned out like that. Quite plainly capitalism is in serious trouble, but it doesn’t appear to be on the brink of collapsing. And in many ways what we have seen since the bank crises is an intensification of ‘capitalist realism’ really. I mean it has certainly changed its form. Prior to 2008 capitalist realism had a buoyant and bullying quality of the form ‘if you don’t get on board then you will just be left behind, or you will be crushed by the locomotive of history which is definitely going one way only—which is towards more neoliberalisation. Since 2008 capitalist realism has had a more desperate quality – ‘if we don’t all band together then everything is going to go to shit’. So either we accept austerity that has been put in place to defend capitalism or we face inevitable catastrophe; that is the ruling logic.
Now that has been challenged. It has been challenged at a political level, but not at an ideological level. Politically I think we have seen some kind of cracks that were certainly not there prior to 2008; Perhaps most dramatically, a lot of the things I describe in the book, are based on experiences of young people in the UK and it’s significant that the first source of major militancy against capitalist realism in effect did come from young people. And that suggests a break with the ruling logic. But I think the problem is more at the level of an alternative positive ideology, or positive vision. Capitalist realism is challenged as a kind of political system—but at the level of imagination it’s still easier to imaginethe end of the world than the end of capitalism. What’s ‘possible to imagine’ is an effect of the corrosiveness of neoliberalism on the social imagination—we are only just stumbling out of that. And we can see this time and again that the response of reactionaries to the occupy movement or something like that is always ‘well what is your positive vision?’ and there seems to be a reluctance or really an inability to actually produce a positive vision. And I don’t say that in a judgmental way. I think it’s evidence of the real effects of capitalist realism and its ability to paralyze that capacity to imagine alternatives.
So, in other words, it’s not just a question of force and nor is it a question of political will. We have seen substantial will as it were and a substantial despair, dissatisfaction with capitalism. There is a theoretical deficit I think. I think it’s difficult to make the case that theory plays no role in politics anymore and on the left that’s what seems to me to be missing is largely theoretical; an alternative theory of how things work once we have defeated capitalism. Just to summarize then there are challenges to capitalist realism but I don’t see it in any way as being defeated.
Ed: In terms of the change in logic of capitalist realism post-2008—one of the focuses of the book is the cultural manifestations of capitalist realism. So as the logic of capitalist realism has changed do you see this change manifested at the cultural level?
Mark: No. I think culture really lags behind politics. I think particularly music it’s really glaring—there just doesn’t seem to be any music which has substantially grasped the new mood after 2010 really in this country. It seems to me to be a major disjunction between the political situation and cultural forms. The cultural forms that dominate still seem to be so pre-2008 actually. And I think we are really experiencing this lag between culture and politics. Politics is ahead and culture hasn’t caught up with it.
Sam:There was a very vocal and political response from a number of Hip Hop artist in the wake of the riots. There was the song by MC NxtGen about the NHS. I am also thinking of someone like Lowkey who is getting quite a lot of exposure – would you see these as exceptions?
Mark: Yes, largely. There is also a formal problem. Partly what I am talking about in the book is the failure of formal innovation. Because in a way we can situate capitalist realism as kind of naturalised postmodernism where Jameson characterises postmodernism as increased reliance on existing forms, tendency towards pastiche and retrospection. I think those things were kind of remarkable back when Jameson started talking about them in the ‘80s. They are not noticeable anymore. And they are not noticeable anymore because they have become generalised. Even if at the level of content some things have risen to the challenge of articulating the present moment, at the level of form those things remain pretty familiar. In many ways I think it’s a failure of form and of content. Engagement at the level of content remains a kind of exception really.
Sam:Turning to technology then, you describe social media in Capitalist Realism as being ‘profoundly illiterate’, replacing genuine engagement with what you call ‘slogan recognition’—but yet they have also played some part in the recent mobilisations around the world. How do you assess the advantages and disadvantages of social media?
Mark: ‘Profoundly illiterate’ comes from Deleuze and Guattari, who talk about capitalism in general not really being a literate culture. And you see that tendency to what I call post-literacy intensified. I think with social media in general it is a classic case of dialectical ambivalence. We’ve seen the respect in which they can mobilise people, although it may well have been overplayed, At the same time it is foolish to deny that it played some significant role in those events. And it was also part of everything that happened at the end of 2010 with the student movement in the UK—social media played a role in that. At the same time because of the matrix it is plugged into, we don’t know what social media would be like if it wasn’t plugged into late capitalism. That’s why it’s difficult to judge it in itself. Certainly at the moment a large proportion of social media is reproducing capitalist subjectivity for sure, reproducing and intensifying it. But we don’t know if that’s a property of the media themselves or an effect of its current situation.
Nonetheless, one of the things I think is particularly notable is, and I think it relates to this question of cultural stagnancy, is attentional erosion. It’s partly why something like Twitter, I think, it does substantially erode one’s capacity to concentrate on anything. I’ve tried to spend a lot less time on Twitter lately and I think the danger of Twitter, as opposed to Facebook, is tied up with how useful it can be. I tried to spend a lot less time on Twitter before and then ‘Hackgate’ happened and the riots happened, and there it sort of came into its own as a form of counter media. Mainstream media is increasingly intolerable and the only way to work with it is by a counter media network provided by things like Twitter, it makes it more bearable. But at the same time having our consciousness permanently segmented in that way makes it very difficult to concentrate on anything. I don’t want to get into saying that ‘in the good old days of face-to-face interactions’ and all that. I don’t think that’s a useful comparison. The really important contrast is the one between forms of attention giving. One’s capacity to do things like read a book is rapidly deteriotated by something like Twitter. Also in terms of things like writing – in the past when you found a difficulty or an impasse in writing you sort of had to get through that by sticking with it. It’s now so easy to avoid that struggle to get over an impasse because of the distractions that are immediately available. And I think that goes for everybody in culture, captured in a phrase from Linda Stone (some Microsoft Executive turned therapist guru)—‘continuous partial attention’. I think this is the kind of thing that social media is producing in all of us—which is, in a way, quite a nightmarish situation: A world in which no one is really paying attention to anything. And the point as to why I think this is different to ‘the good old days of face-to-face interaction’ is that this form of digital twitch distracts from everything including itself. It’s not as if you fully pay attention to your Twitter feed. It is, by its very nature, kind of fragmentary and it produces this panic sense of belatedness. You always feel as if you are behind, which in a sense you are by the nature of the medium. It would be good to drop into this tickertape immediacy now and again, but it’s not the nature of Twitter that you can drop into it. It’s permanently diverting a large portion of your attention and that means your capacity for other kinds of attentional focus is eroded.
Sherry Turkle’s book, that came out last year, Alone Together, gives a really powerful account of the phenomenology of social media and its effect on particularly young people. What she discusses is the intricate etiquette that’s involved with the social media particularly amongst the young, an etiquette worthy of Jane Austin, where teenagers will spend an hour on a one word text to convey the right level of nonchalance. That phrase, ‘alone together’, captures a lot of the subjective quality of what it is to be plugged into cyberspace. There is this form of degraded collectivity which goes along side this feeling of solitude which never goes away.
I think what is significant about the role of social media in things like the Arab spring and the student militancy was that it broke out of its own conditions. One of the problems of the social media, going back to the blogs and discussion boards, is the interminable debate quality. As if there is an infinite time to debate things rather than to get involved and do them. And what is quite clear was that the tendency to endless debate was broken by mobilisation. But the mobilisations went against the tendencies of social media because it was about the revival of an older style of politics, visions of bodies concentrated in space as opposed to bodies distributed in space that is the normal tendency of cyberspace. I think this then poses another problem which is the way in which communicative technology has colonised our sense of the modern, since our only vision of what is modern is tied up with communicative technology and that any kind of resistance to it or any kind of alternative to it almost seems like a reactionary throwback in a way. And the issue for me is 1) how do we break out of this capturing of the present and possibility in the future by the communicational and 2) how do we articulate the kind of politics that is technological and really doesn’t depend upon this older model necessarily of bodies being together in space. That seems a real problem actually.
Ed:In terms of your last point there, some of the people involved in the student occupations, Occupy and UK Uncut would claim that theirs is a technological politics that also draws upon the uniting of bodies in space – that there are ways in which these two things can mutually reinforce one another, that you can find ways to make them work in a powerful synergy. Are you disputing that?
Mark: I think those two things have worked, but I’m more asking a question than making a statement. Is there synergy with an older form of politics or not—that is what I am asking. Or is this new synergy a new form in itself? Another way of looking at this is you’ve got ‘capital’ which has nothing to do with an occupation of a particular space at all, but is maximally abstract. What can bodies massing in a particular space do? Or how can they combat capital operating at this level of abstraction? And I don’t mean that as a rhetorical question. I mean it actually as a serious question, and I think that is underlying a lot of the issues around strategy is that issue really. What is our equivalent virtuality, as it were, to the virtuality of capital? Can we envisage something on that level? Or must everything finally come down to bodies concentrated in space. I think these are open questions. I certainly wouldn’t be disputing the impact of those kind of synergetic models.
Sam:But you have also identified the dangers of resistance mirroring capital in the way in which it is constantly in flux, constantly moving and dissipating itself—which is one of the characteristics of the social media of network forms of protest and mobilisation.
Mark: One problem is that it mirrors capitalism, the other problem is that it doesn’t mirror capitalism enough you could say. Capital attains a level of abstraction that anti-capital can’t really muster.
Ed:Intrinsically or merely contingently?
Mark: I think contingently. My friends Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek have this term ‘folk politics’ to describe the problem that capital can operationalise ‘folk politics’. ‘Folk politics’ meaning people’s everyday understanding of themselves as conscious beings who have choice and freewill etc etc. Capital can operationalise them while at the same time it doesn’t operate at that level at all. It’s not about free choice and self-consciousness etc. It’s a massively abstract system.
Ed: Clearly you’ve identified a number of challenges for the left in the discussion so far. Have you any idea of how they can be met?
Mark: Well we can begin to see things partly change by the fact that people are out doing things. That is a big difference from really pre-2008. Since 2010 people are out mobilising, and not just the old crowd with its familiar set of strategies. So leftism is not just an historical exercise now, of remembering how things were. I think that changes things somewhat. But, more concretely, it seems to me that one of the most pressing issues is around precarity really and mobilising precarity around a political identity. It’s clear that in lots of ways the old forms of class solidarity just don’t work anymore, partly because of the structures of work etc. We are in a situation in which practically anybody is precarious. And of course the nature of precarious work means that it’s not possible to organise workers in the way it was in the era of Fordism when you had large concentrations of workers in one silo and you could just pull them all out in one go. So this is the testing ground it seems to me. Capitalism depends on precarious workers; the tendency is for increased precarity. And I don’t think that’s only at the sociological level of how many people are in casual jobs, it’s also at an existential level—what happens when solidarity is removed and when security is removed and people feeling the pressure of the removal of these things. This seems to me to be the concrete issue. How to resist this? What are our alternative models and how to coordinate precarious workers? This I think is a technological problem, relating back to our earlier question – since we don’t have workers in face-to-face interactions or concentrated as bodies, since they are dispersed, how can solidarity be produced in these conditions.
Sam:Butin conditions of precarity, isn’t spontaneous action a potentially powerful counterweight to the insecurity of late capitalism?
Mark: We shouldn’t rule out such approaches, but I think there is a danger of spontaneity and a consequent disdain for structures that will persist over time. I think there is a danger of spontaneity and a consequent disdain for structures that will persist over time. I think we do need structures that will persist over time. This is one of the concerns I have with the student movement. Loads of people pulled in at the end of 2010 and experienced high affect and exhilaration from that involvement, then it largely dissipated after that. And it didn’t dissipate because of a failure of will on the part of anybody. It dissipated partly because of the contingency of the rallying point. The rallying point was the vote and the vote went through. I think it’s safe to say that a lot of people would have wanted to continue to be involved and yet there weren’t really the structures there where the involvement could be continued.
We need collective structures that can learn and that requires persistence and persistence of a particular form otherwise you can just wind up repeating the same mistakes. One of the dangers of spontaneism is that you keep just doing the same spontaneous things which produces what Alex Williams calls ‘feel good/feel bad’. I think that’s the role of contemporary anti-capitalist politics actually. Because it feels good to be involved in it, you’re out there with people, but it feels bad because no one really expects anything to change. And that can carry on forever. I think this is the challenge. this was raised in some of the discussions at the Paul Mason event, where some of the things that James Butler said there were really interesting. For instance ‘wild cat’ unionism is a way of thinking through these old oppositions where on the one hand you’ve got ossified trade unions, on the other hand you have spontaneous, self-organized groups. We’ve seen the possibility of wild cat action as a way through that with the Solidarity Federation. There was one great case of one temporary worker who was underpaid by about £50 and then the Solidarity Federation organized this picket. I think that’s a really interesting model. Just the arbitrariness for one thing. Obviously it’s not a major injustice yet suddenly this chain of temp agencies found themselves besieged.
I think that is a really interesting model because the issue is—how do we discipline capital in a post disciplinary society where there is a kind of ambivalence about discipline? Yet workers discipline allowed capital to be disciplined through things like the trade unions. I keep coming back to the trade unions because if we want to look at, in the UK, what is the major contributor to the arrival of capitalist realism—it’s the defeat of the trade unions. Once they are taken out the picture, once their role is minimised we are then in a situation in which business dominates everything. And it seems to me that they haven’t really been replaced. That nothing that neo-anarchism has come up with – and its neo-anarchism which discursively dominates the student movement in the UK and everything that has followed from that – can compete with anything trade unions have done. I don’t think you need to be a stick in the mud, fixated with the ‘good old days’ to say that trade unions fulfilled a certain role that has not been replaced. And that’s not to gloss over everything that has been bad, ineffective, counterproductive about unions.
But it does seem to me that one question, which I do pose in the book and that I think I’m no closer to answering, is—do we persist with trade unions or do we have some other alternatives? One of the issues is around the anti-trade union laws in this country. It does seem to me that if you are going to go to jail, it’s much better to go to jail for challenging the anti-trade union legislation than it is for smashing a window. This legislation is really harsh. Tony Blair said proudly it’s the harshest anti-trade union laws in the developed world and this needs to be tested out over the next few years. It’s how we constitute a force, in a way, outside Parliament. I mean it’s clear that nothing ever happens in Parliament. And nothing will ever happen in Parliament. It’s only when extra parliamentary forces are really strong that Parliament is forced to respond to it. So then how do we create a force that is capable of exerting sustained pressure on the parliamentary structures? It seems to me that part of the problem with trade unionists is that precarious politics is an anomaly to them. The way that they have operated traditionally has meant that they cannot deal with the nature of precarious workers, they cannot deal with the demands of precarious workers.
Ed: ...partly because of the nature of craft unionism, of being overly sectional?
Mark: Exactly. Something that would do the work of trade unions but around precarious workers—and that could be the trade unions themselves.
Ed:I think this is significant because there has been a flickering of union militancy in the last year. In some ways it’s mirrored the ups and downs of the radicalism of the student movement and Occupy – we have seen pensions strikes, for example, both on a very large scale (November 30th) and a depressingly small scale (March 28th – a London-only strike by the NUT and UCU). So clearly the unions aren’t completely reconstituting themselves, but nonetheless one of the stories of the last couple of years has been the return of the unions in some form and it begs the question whether they can be revitalized.
Mark: My general line is just ‘don’t give up on anything’. Just don’t concede any terrain at all. It’s a matter of building. Neoliberalism was built by building heterogeneous assemblages. For a start the alliance of neoliberalism and neo-conservatism was an utterly bizarre one. But the point was that it constituted a force that was irresistible. And that’s what capitalist realism is. Capitalist realism is about force. It’s not about persuading people with particular messages, it’s about persuading people ‘whatever you think, these ideas are now the ruling ideas and you have to go along with them.’ And they can do that because they are capable of mustering these social forces behind it. I think that’s the challenge for us. Why give up on any terrain, you just don’t want to be stuck within the terrain.
That was the problem with New Labour. You could see Capitalist Realism is a book about New Labour. It’s a form of leftist subjectivity of resignation, of ‘we can’t compete on our own terrain, we have to compete entirely on the terrain of our enemy’—and we have seen the results of that now. And there was only one way that was going to turn out, and it did turn out that way. We need to struggle for terrain, whilst not being colonised by the assumptions that operate on it. So there is no point to a strategy of pure entryism where you are operating entirely in the terms of the existing media, entirely in the terms of how trade unions are now, or entirely in the terms of political parties. That is a mistake. But trying to work entirely outside of those things—as some of the neo-anarchist discourse seems to want or to suggest – is an equal and opposite mistake; a kind of mirror of the previous position. It seems to me then that the question is how to exert pressure on those things without belonging to them and that I think is the key issue.
Sam: I am interested in a possible tension in what you’re saying. It seems to me that you interchange the terms ‘capitalism’ and ‘neoliberalism’. And part of what you are saying specifically addresses neoliberalism i.e. we need to return to a period when unions were strong, we need to discipline capital—that that is the alternative we are looking for. Yet one of the other symptoms of capitalist realism you draw attention to in your book is the inability to think of something other than capitalism. I was wondering if you could comment on that.
Mark: I’m not saying we should go back to anything really. Or we may need to seem to go back in certain ways in order to move forward but I’m definitely not nostalgic for Fordism or anything like that. I think the important thing is to recognise, as the attending autonomists did, is that it is the desires of workers really that drove the exit from Fordism. Workers themselves didn’t want to be under bureaucratic union control, doing boring factory jobs for forty years. So I think any tendency towards nostalgia must be tempered, but the point is more that what happens when they are taken out? When a constellation of social forces are removed. It’s not that a regulated capital might not be better in some ways, but I also agree with your further point that that is clearly not sufficient. Though it might be the case that a regulated capital is a route towards something else; we can see that that is a fallback position now for capital is to suggest this as a possibility, to say the problem was lack of regulation and if we had had more regulation then this wouldn’t have happened at all. One way in which capital can save itself is by regulating itself, without a doubt. So I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that the issue is simply overcoming neoliberalism, we can overcome neoliberalism and still be faced with a miserable capitalism.
Ed:Following on from that, you mentioned in the beginning about the need to articulate an alternative to capitalism. Have you seen anything that could work as a vision to mobilise around?
Mark: I’ve seen fragments of them, but for me these things are just not there at the moment. But that’s not a counsel of despair. It’s the opposite. I think what we need is just a really broad range of different models. They don’t have to cohere. We have to go out there and ask ‘well what would we like things to look like?’ Whether at an economic level, a cultural level etc etc. That work about vision or visions is yet to be done.
Ed:.There are people working on anti-capitalist vision. I’m thinking of Michael Albert and participatory economics or, less ambitiously, Erik Wright and the real utopias project.
Mark: I think a lot of the problem is a lot of the language we’ve got around ‘utopia’, ‘revolution’ and related concepts. In many ways I think what we need is something very much more mundane. What would a mundane vision of life be like in post-capitalism. I think that one of the decisive battles to be fought is to articulate an actually genuine post-capitalism as opposed to a regulated mitigated capitalism, or a kind of pre-capitalism.
There are also tendencies towards localism where a lot of the anti-capitalism slides into explicitly anti-statism which then slides into an anti-politics in general where their vision is a kind of withdrawal into local communities etc. I have two concerns about this, 1) I think it is reactionary anyway, dubious in its own terms, and 2) you won’t mobilise or persuade large numbers of people. So I think the issue is how to reignite for people a vision for a non-capitalist society that is also technically modern. That for me is what is substantially lacking for me at the moment and what we need to work on.
Sam:Does that imply we need to champion the aspects of capitalism or neoliberalism that have been modernising?
Mark: Yes I think that is really important. One of the things I hold on to from Marx is the notion that ‘communism’ (a term we have to use carefully) is only possible on the basis of the technological achievements of capitalism. That is an insight I think we really want to keep hold of in the current moment. There is nothing about technology itself which necessitates capitalist modes of organisation. We can be pro-technological anti-capitalists.