Saturday, July 17, 2010

Is there an alternative?

Book Review from the July 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Mark Fisher, Zero Books, 2010

Mark Fisher’s very short book is a quick and entertaining read and makes a good companion to David Harvey (see above/last month). Where Harvey focuses mostly on the how and why of the capitalist crisis, exploring its historical, geographical and economic aspects, Fisher instead looks at how recent developments have impacted on the cultural and psychological spheres. It has led us to a situation where, he argues, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. The deathly legacy of Thatcher’s insistence that “there is no alternative’ lingers on.

Fisher’s insights are drawn partly from the heads of philosophers and partly from his own personal experience. The philosophers he quotes are famous for their obscurity and difficulty, but Fisher does a good job of making their ideas accessible for the general reader. That will put readers in a better position to decide for themselves whether the obscurity is worth penetrating.

Fisher is more interesting and amusing when he turns to his personal experience in Britain’s education system. It’s hard not to sympathise with him as he does his best to inspire dozing teenagers with learned cultural-studies discourses on Doctor Who while they slouch across their desks, plugged into their iPods, snacking on crisps. And that’s the most rewarding part of Fisher’s job. The rest of it is spent filling out forms trying to convince bureaucrats that what he has just done is of some worth in the capitalist market place.

But I’ll counter Fisher’s personal experience with my own. I, too, was once a teenage student, dozing on my desk while a professor tried his best to knock some education into me. But outside of the classroom, I was enjoying and making the most of a period of never-to-be-repeated freedom (from parental control, from capitalist work, from the responsibilities of adult and family life), and pursuing my own interests, including educating myself in socialist politics. Of course I’m not suggesting that all Fisher’s students are doing likewise. But the point is that he doesn’t know what they are doing. At a minimum, you’d have to ask them to find out.

A study of history and the social sciences, particularly anthropology, consistently reveals that things are rarely quite as they seem. Workers are never quite as oppressed and docile as they figure in the imaginations of Marxist professors. Management control is never as total as the managers and bosses dream. We are never as lost in the unrealities of television and the spectacle as French philosophers imagine. There’s always a hidden undercurrent of imaginative engagement and resistance. It’s always much more rewarding when an author has gone to the trouble of finding it and encouraging its development than denying its existence and wallowing in gloom.

Fisher concludes with some political proposals that he dresses up as exciting and new, but is mostly old fare – for example, the reinvigoration of the left, the awakening of a ‘public’ consciousness, more worker control over the labour process, popular control over the state, and so on. But to end on a positive note of agreement, Fisher at least points in vaguely the right direction if you’re after a convincing answer to the question in the subtitle of the book. Yes, there is an alternative, he says, but the working class will have to organise politically if it ever wants to see it.

Stuart Watkins

Pieces Together

From the July 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard


"No nation in the world has a gulf between rich and poor as great as South Africa's. Despite billions of euros in investments related to the 2010 World Cup, last year more than a million South Africans lost their jobs. During the first three months of this year, 171,000 entered the unemployment rolls. The official unemployment rate is over 25 percent, the highest level seen in the past five years. Unofficially, it is estimated to be closer to 40 percent. A recent study completed by the University of South Africa concluded that 75.4 percent of South Africans fall below the poverty level – and almost all those poor are black. 'Persistent poverty, rising levels of unemployment and violent crime, together with the crisis in the public health sector," writes Amnesty International in its annual report, have contributed at least as much as corruption and nepotism to the often violent protests that have recently shaken South Africa.'" (Spiegel On Line, 3 June)


"Britain signalled a new openness on nuclear weapons yesterday, revealing that its stockpile will not exceed 225 warheads, including up to 160 that are ready for action. William Hague, the Foreign secretary, said: 'We believe that the time is now right to be more open about the weapons we hold.'"(London Times, 27 May)


"The Pentagon has now told the public, for the first time, precisely how many nuclear weapons the United States has in its arsenal. That is exactly 4,802 more than we need. Last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before the Senate to advocate approval of the so-called New Start treaty, signed by President Obama and President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia last month. The treaty's ceiling of 1,550 warheads deployed on 700 missiles and bombers will leave us with fewer warheads than at any time since John F. Kennedy was president. Yet the United States could further reduce its reliance on nuclear weapons without sacrificing security. Indeed, we have calculated that the country could address its conceivable national defense and military concerns with only 311 strategic nuclear weapons." (New York Times, 21 May)


"Nicolaus Copernicus, the 16th-century astronomer whose work was later condemned by the Catholic Church as heretical, was reburied by Polish priests as a hero yesterday, 467 years after he was laid to rest in an unmarked grave. His reburial in a tomb in the cathedral where he once served as a church canon and doctor indicates how far the church has come in making peace with the scientist whose revolutionary theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun helped to usher in the modern scientific age. Copernicus, who lived from 1473 to 1543, died as a little-known astronomer working in what is now Poland, far from Europe's centres of learning." (Independent on Sunday, 23 May)