Sunday, April 11, 2010

Notes on Capitalist Realism

I've been kicking around a variety of thoughts in connection to Mark "k-punk" Fisher's Capitalist Realism, but it turns out that most them have to do with things that have been said, by him and others, in the meta-commentary surrounding the book, at his blog and elsewhere. Before I get to those, I wanted to post something brief about what I liked about the book.

The subtitle to Capitalist Realism is "Is there no alternative?" This, of course, intentionally calls to mind Margaret Thatcher's famous expression, "There Is No Alternative", the neo-liberal slogan par excellence. "Capitalist Realism" is Fisher's apt phrase for the widely held belief that, in fact, there is indeed no alternative, the depressing sense that people have that this is simply the way it is, that there is no way out. In his book, he does a nice job of observing and diagnosing certain aspects of the current situation. His focus is, perhaps too heavily, if understandably, on Britain, in particular the manner in which neoliberal reforms have transformed higher education there into a bureaucratic nightmare. (But see Ads without Products for a useful complication of this point, observing this process as, effectively, the pseudo-marketization of British socialism—that is, a public welfare sector much more extensive than any found in the United States. Given this focus, Ads wonders about the relevance of the analysis outside of Britain. Though in my working life, exclusively in the private sector, I have plenty of personal experience with the kind of mind-numbing bullshit paperwork Fisher seems to be talking about. It does have a demoralizing effect, though it's difficult to separate it from the demoralizing effect of the work itself. At least in academia, in theory presumably there is something of value you're being kept from by the paperwork.)

For me, the best aspect of the book is the attention paid to mental illness as function of this belief in capitalist realism rather than as exclusively the result of bio-chemical imbalances. The chemical imbalance paradigm of mental illness has long troubled me, even as I could plainly see people benefiting from the use of drugs to contain depression. The book aside, this was one of the themes I appreciated most as a k-punk reader, so it was nice to see Fisher expand on the idea here. In early February, Levi Bryant had an excellent post at Larval Subjects exploring this theme in Capitalist Realism. I recommend you read it. For now, this is a key passage from the book on this topic (to save time, I'm actually copying this from Bryant's post):
The current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness. The chemico-biologization of mental illness is of course strictly commensurate with its de-politicization. Considering mental illness an individual chemico-biological problem has enormous benefits for capitalism. First, it reinforces Capital’s drive towards atomistic individualization (you are sick because of your brain chemistry). Second, it provides an enormously lucrative market in which multinational pharmaceutical companies can peddle their pharmaceuticals (we can cure you with our SSRIs). 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 seratonin. This requires social and political explanation; and the task of repoliticizing mental illness is an urgent one if the left wants to challenge capitalist realism.
I've left in bold the same words that Bryant bolded, because I think it is worth making the very emphasis he is making.

As indicated above, I'll be returning to this book, more specifically the discussion attending the various reviews, in future posts. Consider this post, then, a space clearing in anticipation of what I expect will be more detailed and more interesting arguments.


Ethan said...

I'm always kind of torn about this kind of analysis of mental illness. On the one hand it makes a great deal of sense to me, and I know my own depression feels like it has a lot to do with navigating a capitalist world against my will. On the other hand I'm hesitant to accept this explanation because it feels like I'm just doing it because it's easy: I know capitalism is bad, so why not blame it for mental illness too. That is to say, I'm a bit wary of explanations that fall too conveniently into my own worldview, or at least I try to be. Still, though, the first hand is pretty convincing.

On a slight tangent, I'm always kind of bugged by arguments (which I have not seen you make, but which I'm reminded of by this post) that the chemical imbalance model of mental illness is a fraud perpetrated just to sell SSRIs and other medications. I'm sympathetic to the argument, and certainly we should all work for a world where these medications are unnecessary, but in the world we live in, what are people who can't function without them supposed to do?

At this point I'm not so much responding to you, Richard, as I am kind of sleepily ranting about whatever comes to mind, so I think I'll stop. Interesting stuff, is all I'm trying to say.

Richard said...

I hear you, Ethan. I think it's clear that people have been helped by taking Prozac or Zoloft or what-have-you. I don't think the point is to tell people, in this world, that they ought not take them, given that they have to function in this world, and not in some other one. But I think it's worth looking at social causes of individual ailments, so that we might be able to prevent others from having to needlessly suffer them, where possble.

Also, I wouldn't call the chemical imbalance model a "fraud", really, rather the natural outgrowth of the hyper-medicalization of healthcare combined with the increasingly constrained world of work in neoliberal capitalism. Which is admittedly a rather grand way of putting it.

Ethan said...

I completely agree. I hope you don't think I was trying to say you were making those arguments, by the way. Just things your post made me think of.

I'm kind of horrified right now by the fact that the anti-spam word is "corpse."