Capitalist Realism

April 28, 2011

Beware anything that's defended most often by attacking its alternatives.

I checked out this book for its subtitle–Is There No Alternative?–curious about what could possibly replace capitalism as the central paradigm for how we run the world. Fisher’s first sentence, “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” confirmed my curiosity. But I misunderstood. It isn’t capitalism itself to which Fisher wants to propose an alternative, but rather capitalist realism.

“Capitalist realism” is a term the author borrows to name the ideological belief that capitalism is the only “realistic” system for running things. Regardless of whether or not this thesis is true, what does it say that we tend to defend our capitalism not by praising its virtues but by excoriating its alternatives? We’ve all been screwed by a corporation at one time or another, but any frank discussion about our economic system is haunted by the idea we’ve been sold that the only alternative to corporate marauding is ravenous, baby-eating Stalinism.

By deflecting any criticism in this way, capitalist realism has over the past thirty-or-so years “successfully installed a ‘business ontology’ in which it is simply obvious that everything in society, including healthcare and education, should be run as a business.” This leads to some bizarre consequences since some things, like education, don’t work well as businesses (are students the product, or the consumer?) We end up having to create artificial markets where test scores play the role of product, but this rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of the measurement with the thing measured, and has the counter-productive consequence of pressuring teachers to teach the test, not the subject. Capitalized healthcare is similarly vexed. Since you can’t sell health, the system depends for its profits (and thus its lifeblood) on the delivery of healthcare. But you only need that when you’re sick, so the system ironically and massively incentivizes illness, especially chronic and expensive diseases like obesity and diabetes, which the food industry steps in to induce with a range of delicious and well-marketed poisons. So the first step toward counteracting capitalist realism is pointing out that capitalism is a very good system for producing widgets and profits, but not educated and healthy citizens. Nor, it turns out, happy citizens.

The psychological costs of our capitalism

Fisher points to several ways in which capitalism as we practice it is detrimental to our mental well-being:

And to anyone who would raise the objection that depression is caused by deficiencies of dopamine and serotonin and not by how the world is run, Fisher responds:

It goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation. If it is true, for instance, that depression is constituted by low serotonin levels, what still needs to be explained is why particular individuals have low levels of serotonin. This requires a social and political explanation; and the task of re-politicizing mental illness is an urgent one if the left wants to challenge capitalist realism. (37)

He also points to the uncanny convenience for capitalism of this biologization of mental illness:

If this sounds like a conspiracy, it absolutely isn’t. This is simply the natural result of putting human wellness in the hands of a system whose only value, in principle and practice, is profits. If only we could monetize human well-being.

In Conclusion

Now, I actually like capitalism and I would agree that it is the best system we’ve got for running a large-scale economy. But we need to recognize that it isn’t good at everything (e.g. everything mentioned above) and that the solution to capitalism’s shortcomings isn’t more capitalism. Stalinism isn’t the only alternative to capitalism as we practice it–another alternative is always better capitalism. But to get started down that path, we need to recognize capitalist realism for what it is, an empty argument for the status quo.