Against the “Slow Cancellation of the Future”

We were saddened to hear yesterday’s news of Mark Fisher’s unexpected death. Our thoughts are with his family and friends. 

Fisher’s work on the notion of “capitalist realism” and interventions to the political imaginary of neoliberalism were critical to our intellectual formation as a collective. [1] What was integral to Fisher’s critique of the false utopianism of late capitalism was precisely the insistence against anti-utopianism as the logical counterpart to “There Is No Alternative.” As he writes,

If capitalist realism is so seamless, and if current forms of resistance are so hopeless and impotent, where can an effective challenge come from? A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism. Poverty, famine and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated easily painted as naive utopianism. Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ turns out to be nothing of the sort. [2]

This ideology of capitalist realism promotes a particularly dystopian worldview, which Fisher also shows us how to critically unpack – not to the service of anti-utopia, but for the purpose of anti-capitalist imagination and struggle.

If we cannot imagine the end of capitalism without – or as something other than – the end of the world, how does struggle become anything more than survival? More recently, Fisher describes the mutations of futurity in contemporary capitalism. “The slow cancellation of the future has been accompanied by a deflation of expectations,” he explains:

It is not that nothing happened in the period when the slow cancellation of the future set in. On the contrary, those thirty years has been a time of massive, traumatic change. In the UK, the election of Margaret Thatcher had brought to an end the uneasy compromises of the so-called postwar social consensus. Thatcher’s neoliberal programme in politics was reinforced by a transnational restructuring of the capitalist economy. The shift into so-called Post-Fordism – with globalization, ubiquitous computerization and the casualisation of labour – resulted in a complete transformation in the way that work and leisure were organised. In the last ten to fifteen years, meanwhile, the internet and mobile telecommunications technology have altered the texture of everyday experience beyond all recognition. Yet, perhaps because of all this, there’s an increasing sense that culture has lost the ability to grasp and articulate the present. Or it could be that, in one very important sense, there is no present to grasp and articulate any more. [3][4]

From these dystopian conditions, Fisher’s writings on mental health have been incredibly influential to our collective, offering a set of epistemological methods by which to counteract pathological frameworks. “Capitalist realism insists on treating mental health as if it were a natural fact, like weather (but, then again, weather is no longer a natural fact so much as a political-economic effect),” he writes, “In the 1960s and 1970s, radical theory and politics (Laing, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, etc.) coalesced around extreme mental conditions such as schizophrenia, arguing, for instance, that madness was not a natural, but a political, category.” To this, Fisher adds a powerful insight, stressing the urgency to politicize ‘mental health’ under neoliberal capitalism:

Instead of treating it as incumbent on individuals to resolve their own psychological distress, instead, that is, of accepting the vast privatization of stress that has taken place over the last thirty years, we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill? The ‘mental health plague’ in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high. [5]

In this sense, Fisher’s suicide is evermore tragic, and all the more reason for us to take up mental health as a political struggle. Suicide cannot be reduced to the moral fortitude and private stress of the liberal individual, stripped of their social conditions. The experience of losing someone to suicide must likewise compel us to collectivize and de-individuate shared psychological conditions of a seemingly unendable capitalism.

‘Utopia’ is a term that has been emptied out and re-purposed by the dystopia of late capitalism. However sullied by post-1960s neoliberalism, utopian thought and inquiry is not only necessary, but incredibly dangerous today. While the idea of ‘utopia’ appears naive and even hysterical under capitalist realism, the pathologization and irrationalization of anti-capitalist longing presents an enduring threat. In the face of the hard-right global turn, these problems must come to the foreground of our struggles.

With solidarity from the Blind Field editors…

[1] Fisher’s incredible blog, K-Punk, has been an inspiration to our project as well. 

[2] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Zer0, 2009.  

[3] Mark FIsher, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures, Zer0, 2013.

[4] See also: “The Slow Cancellation of the Future”

[5] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Zer0, 2009.

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