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Capitalist Catastrophism

Is Mark Fisher’s “capitalist realism” this generation’s “end of history thesis”? For nearly thirty years Francis Fukuyama’s contention that “Western liberal democracy” represents “the endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution” has measured the ebb and flow of history. The collapse of the World Trade Center; the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; the 2008 financial crisis, the rise of ISIS, the climate crisis, and now the coronavirus have each prompted op-eds testing the thesis and finding it confirmed or wanting.

In 2017 even Fukuyama had a go at becoming an anti-Fukuyamist when he voiced concern for the future of Western democracy, later going as far as to say that socialism “ought to come back” — if only to save capitalism from itself.

Since 2009, when Fisher first defined capitalist realism as “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible to even imagine a coherent alternative to it,” his theory has inspired similar periodizations.

Already in 2012, Paul Mason was convinced that the era capitalist realism was over. Carried away by the excitement of the Arab Spring and Occupy movements, Mason believed that capitalism’s hold on reality was broken and that a new, networked and democratic future was in the making.

Fisher disagreed. Capitalist realism, he explained, was more pernicious than Mason realized. Many of those who consciously oppose capitalism have often unconsciously accepted it as the unalterable backdrop to their anti-capitalism. From this perspective, the Arab Spring and Occupy Movement look exactly how we should expect capitalist realist protests to look. Both struggles knew what they were against but they were incapable of articulating a vision of the future that broke with the capitalist horizon. Their demands, if they made any at all, were for an extension of bourgeois democracy and for a more equal distribution of capitalism’s ill-gotten gains. Capitalist realism, in other words, persisted.

In January 2019, Micah Uetrict proposed a different end date, the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, he wrote, could “finally spell the beginning of the end of capitalist realism.” After decades of unremitting neoliberalism, the popularity of these figures suggested that it was not only possible to imagine the end of capitalism but that movements were ready and willing to fight for it. More than this, unlike the Occupy movement before it, this new sequence of struggles had developed a set of demands and policies that took aim at some of the essential aspects of global capitalism: the exploitation of nature, the length of the working week, racialized and gendered oppression, and ownership of at least some of the means of production. As Keir Milburn, another advocate of this perspective wrote, the Corbyn moment had put a “crack in Capitalist Realism, a crack through which a flood of pent up postcapitalist desires have burst.”

Time has been no kinder to this argument than Mason’s. A little over a year later and the Corbyn and Sanders projects are defeated, a pandemic is tearing its way through the world’s population and tens of millions are unemployed across the US and Europe. According to the International Monetary Fund, the global economy will face its worst recession since the Great Depression. In Europe, where even before the pandemic Italy’s debt-to-GDP ratio was at 134 percent and Spain’s and France’s were nearing 100 percent, there are warnings of a sovereign debt crisis that could pose an existential threat to the European Union. Meanwhile, the newly “independent” UK, where I live, is forecast to see its economy shrink by 14 percent in 2020, its deepest recession on record. On top of all of this the climate crisis rages on unaddressed and unabated.

It is possible to interpret the global response to this sequence of events as a vicious reassertion of capitalist realism. After a brief respite where it seemed that another world was possible, we have been thrown forcefully back into this world, a world where capital reigns supreme, where it is not inconceivable to let people die so that capitalism might live and where we must bail out private companies with public money. This is a world in which Rishi Sunak’s “whatever it takes” is the new “there is no alternative” and where even supposed leftists — to turn once more to Mason — are incapable of imagining a solution to the crisis more ambitious than raising taxes and “making future generations pay.”

For all the left’s talk of how the virus is “re-writing our imaginations” so that “what felt impossible has become thinkable,” a devastating global pandemic has failed to make the case for universal healthcare in the US or the value of so-called “unskilled labor” in the UK, let alone the abolition of capital. Capitalist realism, it seems, persists.

Against this interpretation, I want to suggest that we are not really in capitalist realism anymore, that we have in fact been leaving it for quite some time and that the signs of what might replace it in our pandemic-ridden and rapidly warming world are increasingly apparent. Unless there is a radical break from capitalism — a revolution — what will supplant capitalist realism is not the ability to imagine and fight for a post-capitalist future as Mason, Uetricht and Milburn had hoped, but something more ambiguous and perhaps ultimately worse. I call this something worse “capitalist catastrophism.”

Capitalist catastrophism is what happens when capitalist realism begins to fray at the edges. It describes a situation in which capitalism can no longer determine what it means to be “realistic,” not because of the force of movements assembled against it but because capital’s self-undermining and ecologically destructive dynamics have outstripped capitalism’s powers to control them.

Unlike capitalist realism, capitalist catastrophism is not a coherent social formation but rather the unmaking of one. It is the unraveling of capitalist realism that the “catastrophic convergence,” to borrow Christian Parenti’s phrase, of climate breakdown, a global pandemic, and the persistent violence wrought by capital on the poor and working-class has brought into view.

The above introduces the following sections:

From Capitalist Realism to Capitalist Catastrophism

  • It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism
  • The Future is canceled
  • Capitalism is a class project
  • The end of capitalist catastrophism?

Read it all here:

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