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mark fisher’s capitalist realism

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Ah insomnia! A little worried that I’ve found the problem of my early-middle age. Anyway, was up from 4 AM this morning and decided to spend the wee small hours reading Mark Fisher’s new Capitalist Realism, which I’ve finished, and which is quite a good read. (And quick! I made it through in about 2.5 hours while also answering blog responses, writing a couple of emails, and making and drinking 1.5 pots of coffee…)

One thing that occurred to me while reading it is just how British Mark’s examples and ultimately his arguments are. Obviously this isn’t a problem! But from an American perspective, or at least to this American, what Capitalist Realism is really about at center, given its preoccupations, is not really capitalist ideology and atmospherics in general so much as a specific (and specifically British) set of phenomena having to do with the lingering bits of British socialism, the remnant bits of the welfare state. The book focuses on the experiences of those who work for or use a set of public resources – further education colleges and state-funded universities, NHS-provisioned psychological care, the BBC, etc. I can’t actually think of a single example of non-public business mentioned in the book. (He talks a bit about call centers – but in the UK these are often attached to public organizations like the NHS too…)

It’s not even the standard story about privatization that Mark is ultimately telling here, though it’s a related story. Rather, Capitalist Realism is ultimately focused on something else – the ways that public institutions that haven’t and likely won’t be privatized have been forced (have been forced to) to participate in simulated markets, where a rigorous regime of testing on a set of metrics replaces the invisible hand of the market. It’s a governmental gambit driven at once by a desire to reduce funding across the board and to convince voters that they are taking the efficacy of public institutions very seriously. Since it couldn’t / can’t actually expose some public institutions to market forces through opening competition or privatization, New Labour established (and continues to establish) pseudo-markets, fake market-like games, for public institutions to compete in in order to obtain funding.

The Research Assessment Exercise (now, the Research Excellence Framework) is the face of this that I’m most familiar with, as it’s the pseudo-market in place for higher education in the UK. The short version of the process is that academic departments collect and submit “research inputs” from their staff – three or four “inputs” from each lecturer including essays, books, editions or whatever the equivalents are discipline to discipline. These will be assessed according to a variety of metrics by a board, who will rate the inputs and, when the results are aggregated, departments as wholes. Funding will be distributed (according to a complex formula) to universities based on the results. Entities like the NHS have their own versions of this sort of exercise. And further, it’s easy to see how the dominance of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in the NHS’s mental health provision has everything to do with its cost-effective and goal-oriented nature.

Having benchmarks and metrics to measure the effectiveness isn’t, to my mind, a strictly bad thing in principle. It’s not a terrible idea for state-funded agencies to be required to demonstrate that they are in fact working correctly. The oldest problem of socialist economic organization is how to provoke productivity and promote efficiency once work has been shielded from the imperatives of the market. But on the other hand, while the rules of market participation are quite clear cut (make a lot of money, one way or another), the very pseudo-ness of this sort of exercise allows the bureaucrats and politicians involved in its development wide latitude to accomplish nefarious ends – and to accomplish them with all of the trappings of semi-scientism and “definitive” league tables.

For instance, while it’s still a bit early to tell exactly what metrics will be employed in this current round of the REF. This is a big problem to start with – we’ve all already been playing a game whose rules still haven’t been formulated two years into the match… But what’s worse is that there’s a good chance that the rules will be skewed to favor varieties of research that humanities academics simply don’t produce.  I won’t go into the details here – I swim in this stuff all day and night, and simply can’t go through it again. If you’re really interested check out Stefan Collini’s excellent piece in a recent TLS, describes the problematic situation for the humanities very vividly.

At any rate, to an American, or at least this American, Capitalist Realism is as much a book about the adaptation of the UK’s lingering socialist structures – public education facilities, public health care provisioners, public broadcasters – not so much to capitalism per se, but to the simulation of capitalism that defines New Labour’s approach to public services. Since Americans barely have any of these structures even to worry about – little public health care, public education is mostly administered on the local or state level, PBS and NPR aren’t large enough to matter in the way that the BBC does – there’s only been a small amount of pseudo-market gaming. (Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act was a step in the direction of “standards-based education reform” on a federal level). And while some of the structures that Mark describes can be found in the private sphere, the self-assessment and self-monitoring that he focuses on really are, to my mind, most prevalent in the British public sphere, a framework of holdover socialist public organization constantly being tampered with by a state whose priorities lies elsewhere.

And this fact has important ramifications for the assessment of the overall argument of Capital Realism. On the final pages of the book, when Mark addresses the question “What is to be done?,” one of his primary suggestions is that the left focus on the reduction of bureaucracy – a suggestion that certainly seems to correspond with the evidence and analysis that he provides throughout. Still, and given what I’ve said above, it is a suggestion that is not without a significant amount of danger. For while we would all like to do less of this maddening bureaucratic work, and while much of this bureaucratic work is aimed ultimately at the cynical reduction of public service in the name of efficiency, there are more pernicious (and more likely) paths to the reduction of bureaucracy than leftist agitation and refunding. I know I’ve focused disproportionately on education in this post, but just one more time: I’m sure, for instance, that the for-profit University of Phoenix in the USA would love to give the Tories a hand at straightening out the UK further and higher education systems and their reams of paperwork once they get in office… Or, as will likely be the case, the Conservative government (or pre-emptive Labour) can allow universities to set their own student fees, which will let “students decide” with their increasingly empty wallets and increasingly large student loans how the funds are apportioned rather than a board of bureaucrats monitoring the self-monitoring of the academics.

Written by adswithoutproducts

December 2, 2009 at 1:34 pm

15 Responses

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  1. Just an additional data point: there certainly was a vogue a while ago for introducing internal simulated markets in commercial enterprises, e.g. banks, where different parts of the enterprise would treat each other as “customers”, and apply a “customer service” ethic to their interactions – this in spite of considerable resistance from people who were used to seeing one another as colleagues…


    December 2, 2009 at 5:21 pm

  2. I really enjoyed his portrayal of the young people trapped in these systems and the kind of flat depression that seems to have seeped into their attitude. It’s quite a Zizekian book at times but as a liberal often baffled by Marxism in its thery form I really got something out of it.

    Paul John Ennis

    December 2, 2009 at 9:38 pm

  3. Where is Ads without Products? Stop yer grading or yer international traveling or book-writing or what-have-you and give us an update, eh?


    December 9, 2009 at 4:56 am

  4. The great feature of this book is its quality of writing and its accessibility – no hobby horse is dwelt on too long, and he has really managed to produce a ‘primer’ on this sort of cultural politics that many (including me) will understand far better than Zizek.

    But I was baffled by the stuff on dyslexia and other problems of his students – it’s dangerously close to Theodore Dalrymple in its conclusions of a systemically damaged youth that have a unique kind of technologically induced fecklessness that has never been seen before (which goes back centuries to ‘penny dreadfuls’ etc). Likewise the stuff on bureaucracy or rather ‘the Audit Society’, which has been a subject of research in management schools since 1994. It’s basically also that bit from Hitch Hikers where they pack off all the managers to another planet (or even Dilbert).

    It will be interesting to see where he goes from here – an unwillingness to grapple with what is really social and economic usually results in being the kind of pundit that rewrites the same book over and over again (like Sennett, Zizek, Oliver James, Naomi Klein) without throwing any new light on the problem of how to make social democracy function better and make it more democratically appealing.


    December 20, 2009 at 4:00 pm

  5. The Book Is Rubbish and I Did Not, Write This…


    Mark Fisher

    December 24, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    • The Book is Rubbish eh? Bloody Intellectuals!

      Having worked as a Photographer’s Agent for many years, it is not hard to see where the ‘real’ Mark Fisher is coming from. All I can think to do, when confronted with such apposite and hard-hitting criticism, is to congratulate Mr Fisher (the photographer you understand – the one who does brilliant landscapes, was a Press Liaison Officer, in the US Military etc.) on having read a book in the first place – albeit a short one!

      Lesley Davis

      February 10, 2011 at 2:20 pm

  6. Please Remove this post:

    It has been use the Tag New York Photographer Mark Fisher.

    The Is Not The Work Of American Photographer Mark Fisher

    Filmmaker And Photographer MARK FISHER

    Work with the camera
    started in 1966.
    Every subject that came in front of the lens.

    The Image maker grew up in the United States.
    Served in the U.S. Military
    as an Medic, then a Press Liaison Officer and Photographer.
    After the Military:
    He continue Photography and Captured hundreds of Landscapes and
    scenes of life. In the 1970’s Fashion appeared to become the main
    subject. Music Images were a detour from boredom. Capturing the live
    essence of the musician became the main focus. The Band Promos
    look as if the group is about to go on stage. Everything looks “Now Now Now, Timeless”.
    His Portraits are full of life and are hard to rival.

    It is shame that a few bad apple wreck things.

    Visit His Website:

    Mark Fisher

    April 9, 2010 at 3:15 pm

  7. Um, Mark. No, I won’t remove the post. There’s more than one Mark Fisher in the world and that’s just the way it is, how names work, etc…


    April 10, 2010 at 1:51 pm

  8. Fashion appeared to become the main

    Sorry to hear that, Mark. I hope you recovered ok.


    April 15, 2010 at 5:53 am

  9. Well Tagging Mark Fisher is Fine…

    The tagging of three word or more to attract

    Search victims is silly, You must be…

    Many had thought Mark Fisher American Photographer

    wrote this book… I will survive… Will you!!!

    Ha! I don’t tag to raise my totals…

    To find image to look at just click this page…

    This will be the work of a Photographer.

    Here are the tags these wonderful People used:

    Mark Fisher NYC1,Mark Fisher Photographer,Film Maker Mark Fisher,New York Photographer Mark Fisher,Fashion Photographer Mark Fisher, Rock Photographer Mark Fisher,U.S. Photographer Mark Fisher,American Photographer Mark Fisher,

    The book must be a real flop!

    Doing these comments are loads of fun.

    They show up on the web…

    People know your site is not promoting Mark Fisher,

    But a book… Remember, this is a second thought…

    Children will be Children…

    Mark Fisher

    April 23, 2010 at 2:24 am

  10. The authors have deleted this blog. The content is no longer available.
    You can create your own free blog on

    Love It Love It!!!

    Mark Fisher

    April 23, 2010 at 2:44 am

  11. Hello There,

    I Just Met Mark Fisher He Does Not Know This Page.

    In Fact He Was Deadly Afraid Of Me, When I Met Him At NYU.

    He Did Not Start Teaching Until The year 2000.

    Too Bad, Your Page May Put Him In Jail.

    He Maybe Arrested Here In New York, Tomorrow Because Of

    The Tags From This Site Caused A Fraud And

    Because Of The Fraud Caused By This Site

    A Crime Was Committed.

    I Have Photographs Of Mark Fisher, Which Will

    Identify Him Beyond A Doubt. 20 East 5th Room 471.

    I Have Asked Repeatedly The Tags To Be Removed.

    Tomorrow Morning, A Warrant Will Be Issued For The Fraud

    Caused By This Blog. Screen Shots Were Been Made.

    He Denied Having Anything To Do With This Blog.

    He Is Connected To Zero Books, Too Bad About The Fraud…

    Contact Him Promptly, I Warned Him Of The Issue And History.

    Mark Fisher

    May 5, 2011 at 3:37 am

  12. Mark,

    You’re a very, very troubled person. Just leave the other Mark Fisher alone, OK? Of course he seemed scared – you’re acting insane… You seem to have some sort of theory that I’ve intentionally google-jacked you or that he’s stolen your name or something. (WTF are these “tags” you’re referring to?)

    Just for our edification, what is the exact nature of the fraud that you believe has been committed? I say again: more than one person can have the same name. I know it’s baffling, but it’s simply the case…


    May 5, 2011 at 10:45 am

  13. Where is Mark Fisher anyway these days – his blogs gone cold which is unusual especially given all that’s occured of late….


    September 22, 2011 at 10:30 am

  14. […] was reading an old review of Fisher’s Capitalist Realism the other night. It provides quite a novel and precise interpretation of the book that I found […]

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