Capitalism rests on the astounding assumption that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of deeds for the greatest good.
—John Maynard Keynes
In late 2009, my book Capitalist Realism was published. I now joke that, as I was completing the book in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, it felt as if capitalism might be finished before the book was. As we all now know, capitalism didn't collapse—but it would be a mistake to think that there is any possibility of a return to business as usual.
Capitalist realism can be seen as a belief: that there's no alternative to capitalism, that, as Fredric Jameson put it, it's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Other systems might be preferable to capitalism, but capitalism is the only one that is realistic. Or it can be seen as an attitude of resignation and fatalism in the face of this—a sense that all we can do is accommodate ourselves to the dominance of capitalism, and limit our hopes to containing its worst excesses. Fundamentally, it's a pathology of the left, nowhere better exemplified than in the case of New Labour. Ultimately, what capitalist realism amounts to is the elimination of left-wing politics and the naturalisation of neoliberalism.
After the wave of militancy that spread across the world in 2011, the BBC's Economics Editor Paul Mason went so far as to declare the end of capitalist realism. The (non)events of 2012 show that judgment to be a little hasty. 2012 has been a year of restoration and reaction.
Slavoj Zizek's latest book, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, begins with the Persian concept of war nam nihadan: ‘to murder someone, bury his body then grow flowers over the body to conceal it.’ Zizek argues that, in relation to 2011's efflorescence of militancy (Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, the English riots etc) dominant ideology achieved a war nam nihadan. ‘The media killed the radical emancipatory dimension of the events...and then threw flowers over the buried corpse.’ This year, capitalist realism has reasserted itself. Instead of capitalist realism ending in 2008 (or 2011), it could be argued that the austerity measures that have been implemented have constituted an intensification of capitalist realism. Those measures couldn't have been introduced unless there was still a widespread sense that there is no alternative to neoliberal capitalism. The various struggles that have blown up since the financial crisis show a growing discontent with the panic-neoliberalism that has been put in place since 2008, but they have yet to propose any concrete alternative to the dominant economic model.
Capitalist realism is about a corrosion of social imagination, and in some ways, that remains the problem: after thirty years of neoliberal domination, we are only just beginning to be able to imagine alternatives to capitalism. Why is this still the case?
Partly, it is because the decomposition of solidarity on which the victory of neoliberalism depended has not yet been reversed. The various anti-capitalist movements (up to and including Occupy) have not yet constituted a counter-force capable of challenging the super-hegemony of capital. We've become used to a world in which workers fear capital, never the reverse. Capitalist realism was never about direct ideological persuasion; it's not that the population of the UK were ever convinced of the merits of neoliberal ideas. But what people have been convinced of is the idea that neoliberalism is the dominant force in the world, and that, consequently, there is little point resisting it. (I'm not suggesting that most people recognise neoliberalism by name, but they do recognise the policies and the ideological narrative which neoliberalism has so successfully disseminated.) This perception has arisen because capital has subdued the forces acting against it—most obviously, it has crushed unions, or forced them into being consumer or service institutions within capitalism. The situation has changed since the heyday of social democracy, and one of the principal ways in which it has changed is the globalization of capital. Indeed, this is one way that unions were outmanoeuvred: if your members won't work for these rates, we'll go to a place where workers will.
The decadence of parliamentary politics in the UK, with three parties all unabashedly representing the interests of capital, is one consequence of the decomposition of workers' solidarity. The fundamental mistake of New Labour, as the exemplary party of capitalist realism, was that it conceived of its project solely as a matter of adapting to the ‘reality’ that capitalism had already constructed. The dreary result of all its manoeuvrings was the melancholy prospect of ‘power’ without hegemony. Under Ed Miliband, it is clear that Labour has not yet learned the lesson that the point is not to occupy an already-existing centre ground, but to struggle to redefine what the centre ground is. The Thatcherite right had the confidence to plan just such a vertiginous shift of the centre ground in the 1980s, and Labour has been on the back foot ever since. As Stuart Hall so presciently noted in The Hard Road To Renewal, first published in 1988, it was the Thatcherites who dared to think and speak in revolutionary terms. Hall wrote of James Callaghan's shock at the thought that Thatcher, ‘means to tear society up by the roots’. Such a ‘radical attack on the status quo’, Hall wrote, was unthinkable for those steeped in the compromises of social democracy. But Hall's trenchant observations on the inherent conservatism of the Labour Party of his own day apply with a painful piquancy to the current Labour Party, with its desperate claims to be the party of ‘one nation’, and its impotent, reactionary flirtations with family, flag and faith. Hall wrote:
The truth is that traditionalist ideas, the ideas of social and moral respectability, have penetrated so deep inside socialist consciousness that it is quite common to find people committed to a radical social programme underpinned by wholly traditional feelings and sentiments.
What remains, now that the socialist consciousness has succumbed to capitalist realism and the radical programme has given way to pragmatic adaptation to a world governed by neoliberalism, is the moralizing gestures and traditionalism alone.
Alain Badiou has argued that, with the collapse of the leftist experiments of the twentieth century, we are effectively plunged back into a situation similar to that in the nineteenth century, before the labour movements came together. I think that is correct, and we need to develop the same boldness of thinking, ambition and courage that the founders of the labour movement possessed. But rising to that challenge means that we shouldn't remain attached to the ideas and methods that those groups developed for different times. Instead of depressively reclining at the end of history, looking back longingly at all the failed revolts and revolutions of the past, we need to re-situate ourselves in history and claim the future back for the left. What is certain is that the right now has no monopoly on the future: manifestly, it has run out of ideas.
May '68 has left a legacy of anti-institutionalism in the left theoretical currents it has influenced—a legacy that is congruent with many of the assumptions of neoliberalism. But, as the right well understands, politics is not about feel-good parties in the street; it's about controlling and developing institutions. The question is: if the old leftist institutions have declined because they were too associated with Fordism, what institutions will work in the current conditions? My comrade Alex Williams has argued that leftist solidarity needs to assume a ‘post-Fordist plasticity.’ If capital has a certain plasticity, an ability to make alliances between heterogeneous groups, then anti-capital must be similarly plastic. Plasticity here doesn't mean ‘adapting to the demands of capitalism’, i.e. attaining the ‘flexibility’ demanded of workers in practically all job descriptions; it should mean thinking ahead of capitalism, being quicker than it.
Capital isn't literally global, but it is sufficiently global to be able to pit workers from different sides of the planet against each other. Anti-capital, similarly, needs to be globalized enough that workers' interests can be co-coordinated. At the same time, we need to agitate for much more autonomy and control for workers over their immediate work processes—perhaps on the model of work- er-run factories in Latin America. Localism can't tackle global capitalism, and in any case, it is regressive.
As Fredric Jameson has argued, capitalism is the most collective society that has ever existed on earth, in the sense that even the most banal object is the product of a massive web of interdependence. At the moment, this global network is stupid and venal; but rather than abandoning it in favour of some return to agrarianism that will only be possible on the basis of a catastrophe, we need to make the planetary network an intelligent system that can act in the interests of the majority, instead of the tiny minority that profit under the current system. That's not impossible. In fact, we've got an unprecedented opportunity to make it happen.