How to Stop the Future Being Cancelled
A posthumous collection of Mark Fisher's unpublished writing shows that the author of 'Capitalist Realism' is more important than ever.
Acid Corbyn. Photo: JEP Live Music / Alamy Stock Photo
We haven't reckoned enough yet with the legacy of the post-crash years. In 2007-08, neoliberal capitalism seemed in its death throes; we could have seized the opportunity provided by the sub-prime mortgage crash, by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, to install a better system in its place, but instead the banks were deemed "too big to fail" and propped up by governments which privatised their failures onto poorer individuals, ushering in a decade defined by austerity, precarity and anxiety.
There were moments when it seemed like this sad settlement could be broken – the 2010 student protests; Occupy; the "Oxi" vote in Greece. But in the end, their promise was outrun by the right-wing regressions of Leave and Trump. And now we have plenty of fresh new disaster to contend with: from Brexit (whether No Deal or May's limbo) to Trump's borderline genocidal interventions at the US-Mexico border, to climate change.
But nowadays, everything moves so fast; online news gives us such an endless rush of new material, and at times it can seem like our media has no long-term memory at all. Live blogs make it difficult, at times, to understand what was happening a few hours ago. How can we even begin to understand the history behind our present moment? You could do a lot worse than getting hold of a copy of k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016).
Fisher was a philosopher and writer who existed mostly on the fringes of British media and academia until, towards the end of his life, he secured a "proper" academic position at Goldsmiths. Since his death in January of 2017, Fisher has increasingly been recognised as one of the most important thinkers of his time. Hence the new collection, which consists of over 800 pages of compiled blog posts; articles for newspapers and magazines; and previously unpublished drafts.
As "k-punk" – a pen-name he used while blogging – Fisher's writing ranged from philosophy to politics to music, film and literary criticism, but in truth each piece can be hard to classify, since he never considered politics and culture as being anything but inextricably interlinked.
Short articles remind us of the Leveson Inquiry; the aftermath of the 2015 general election; American Express's "Red" ethical consumerism advertising campaign – buried memories, perfect encapsulations of fleeting political moments. There are brilliant dissections of Drake, DJ Rashad and BBC's This Week programme. Longer-term fixations – the social (as opposed to biological) nature of mental health; the radicalism of 80s post-punk; working class identity; the necessity of dogmatism and antagonism to thinking at all – recur periodically throughout.
Over time, something like a system of thought becomes apparent. At the heart of Fisher's thought are three interrelated ideas. The first is also the title of Fisher's first book, Capitalist Realism. This is "the fatalistic acquiescence in the view" – pushed by neoliberal ideologues both in the media and in government – "that there is no alternative to capitalism". People are increasingly open about the fact that capitalism is terrible, but support is maintained for it by the myth that any deviation from the free market would lead to outright disaster. This belief informed the establishment response to the 07-08 financial crisis. It stops us imagining a better world – "analogous to the deflationary perspective of a depressive who believes that any positive state, any hope, is a dangerous illusion".
Since the publication of Capitalist Realism in 2009, the belief has been somewhat eroded – just look at the enthusiasm for openly capitalism-critical politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn, or Bernie Sanders – but it nevertheless remains. As Fisher identifies in "Mannequin Challenge" – a previously unpublished blog post, included in k-punk – Trump and Brexit also captured a certain dissatisfaction with capitalist realism; although in both cases, they attempt to retain the capitalism while rejecting the realism: a position that is "inchoate".
The second key idea is that the future is being "slowly cancelled". Our culture is systematically unable to produce anything genuinely new. From the 1960s until the early 1990s, Fisher claims, popular culture was characterised by regular and often startling upheavals. But since then, even the best artists have relied on citation, pastiche, nostalgia. This is symptomatic of a political context which is unable to imagine the possibility of a better future, a world beyond our own.
And yet we are unable to quite give up on the idea of the future. We are aware – when we look at brutalist housing estates produced in the 1970s, for example – that there was once a time when people imagined that things would turn out differently: that the year 2018 would not be at all like the 2018 we ended up getting. The "spectres of lost futures" – witnessed in the popular art of a bygone era – "reproach... the capitalist realist world".
"Acid communism" would have been the title of the book that Fisher was working on at the time of his death – its unfinished introduction is included in k-punk. Acid communism is Fisher's phrase for the promise of "a new humanity, a new seeing, a new thinking, a new loving", which he says was embedded in the counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In particular, what acid communism heralds is the possibility of what Fisher calls "Red Plenty" – our "collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy".
Neoliberalism emerged as a result of efforts to quash these 60s/70s experiments in "democratic socialism and libertarian communism… to the point of making them unthinkable". The left therefore needs to stop conceiving of itself as "anti-capitalist". It needs to see that “capitalism, with all its visored cops, its teargas, and all the theological niceties of its economics", is anti-left – anti-everything a left-wing government could produce. “Far from being about 'wealth creation',” Fisher writes, “capital necessarily and always blocks the production of common wealth.”
To put it another way: if we want to definitively overcome capitalist realism, we need to regain the future. And the way to do this is by reckoning with the legacy of the 60s/70s counterculture – reviving the promise of acid communism. Even in its fragmentary, previously unpublished form, this idea has already been influential on the Labour left – as "Acid Corbynism". It is surely ripe for appropriation by groups looking to formulate new ways of living in the face of looming climate disaster as well.
And so Fisher's thought looks beyond the time he was writing, towards the left-wing movements which have only gathered momentum since his death. Few understood our politics, our culture and the way things were going quite like Mark Fisher. If nothing else, k-punk is a striking testament to just how much we need his work now.