Capitalist Realism: Why We Can’t Get Nostalgia Out of Our Heads
From the return of the mullet to WandaVision (a Disney homage to retro sitcoms) and everything in between, pop culture is dominated by an obsession with the past. Jokes about the movie industry simply being remakes or Marvel sequels abound. Indeed, very few mainstream works are tasked with describing the strange times we live in, preferring to use nostalgic language of the past to do this work. Is it simply the old Shakespearean adage at work that “...there be nothing new, but that which is hath been before,” or is there a better explanation for the new Black Widow film and Fast and Furious 9?
I argue that this collective obsession with nostalgia and pastiche is not simply the way things always are, but are rather a symptom of a larger cultural issue: an inability within our current political and economic order to dream up alternatives. I draw on Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism and Adam Curtis’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head in order to examine where cultural stagnation and capitalism intersect. I therefore outline where this stagnation arises from in the wider socio-political sphere as it interacts with neoliberal individualism, and then apply it to media and education as prescient spheres in which this phenomenon is occurring.
The subheading of Fisher’s Capitalist Realism reads “Is There No Alternative,” this is of course intended to echo Thatcher’s pro-market slogan. The late 90’s were marked as a time in which capitalism finally proved it was the “only” viable system. Francis Fukayama infamously proclaimed it to be the end of history: there was no dialectical opponent to capitalism after the eradication of “really existing socialism” in the Soviet Union (Fisher, 2009, p.15).
There may be issues presented by the system: increasing inequality, deaths of despair, and the continued legacy of colonialism among them. However, they cannot be eliminated because there is no alternative. There is no overarching system to which to turn and say “let’s try this.” This inability to dream, to see into the future instead of the glitched repetitions of the past serves capital’s continued acceleration. In a quote attributed to both Jameson and Zizek: “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than an end to capitalism.”
Capitalist realism is especially clear within a hyper-individualised neoliberal society (Fisher, 2009, p.23). Individualism comes at the cost of corroding community ties (Curtis, 2021). In these instances it becomes far more difficult to reach support or to simply feel less isolated. There are also ramifications for the welfare of the poorest in society, which will be addressed later. Individualism under neoliberalism and a prevailing sense of capitalist realism both combine to produce a repetitive culture, as the ability to conceive of new possibilities is far removed from the culture.
A key symptom of Capitalist Realism is cultural stagnation. A clear-cut instance in which culture feels to have stagnated is in the world of film. This is not to say that film itself has not come out with a single new or innovative piece recently, but rather the overall culture is simply at a low point. For example, as illustrated below, the prominence of remakes, sequels, or adaptations are on the rise. This means that very few original films are being produced.
This is simply a small part of the larger consolidation of streaming services. While Netflix was originally the leader in the field, it is now possible to subscribe to Hulu, Disney +, Amazon Prime, the Criterion Streaming Service, HBO Max, HBO Go, and Sky Go. While these options have exploded they do little to actually broaden the market of what we watch and consume but rather shuffle around pre-existing content into a never-ending pool of consumption.
What films or television which seek to challenge the system inevitably become reabsorbed into the system itself. These critiques ultimately only serve as further justification for the system. For example, while Parasite was an incredible film about class struggle and inequality, it ultimately also became a favorite of Elon Musk and Chrissy Teigen. They were able to consume a film ostensibly attacking the system they help re-entrench, but capitalist realism has diluted media analysis to the point these critiques become trifles to be consumed even by those who are ostensibly being criticised (Curtis, 2021).
The ability of the system to reabsorb its critique and render it ineffective is nothing new--Adorno remarked on this as early as the 1940’s (Adorno, 1947). However, the ability of the system to absorb critique is uniquely egregious when there is deemed to be no alternative to market capitalism (Curtis, 2021). Not only is the idea that there is no alternative a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it continues the costs that a broken system may have on the citizenry.
In summary, the reason why there have been 7,000 new Marvel movies in combination with a live action remake of every Disney property ever is because there is no way to imagine a meaningful challenge to such a system. By viewing capitalism as a system with no alternative, meaningful critique which provides a new path of doing things is absent (Fisher, 2009, p.33). Our inability to dream new futures therefore stagnates art and leaves us swirling in a pool of our own nostalgia.
Fisher’s work hit me hardest with his description of education within the context of capitalist realism. He outlines a shift from students as a unit of discipline to students as consumers, leaving educators in an awkward middle ground. My experience in lockdown in university halls fared similarly: we were ordered to never leave the hall, but were given such little food (initially 500 calories a day) that it became a necessity to leave. Indeed, it was a rare night when there wasn’t some form of chaos happening. The freedom afforded in this new marketised education system does not manifest as independent research or new artistic projects. The walls became streaked in egg, the glass on the door into the hall shattered, an ever growing hole kicked into the corridor drywall. The response to this freedom is rather typified by “hedonic lassitude: the soft narcosis, the comfort food oblivion of Playstation, all-night TV, and marijuana” (Fisher, 2009, p.23).
To lock students in halls and demand they survive a life-threatening illness on meager calories and then demand academic work to proceed as normal is not a tenable system. However, the university was pushed to this not because of any specific plotting individual but rather the general construction of the education market on a level above the university (Fisher, 2009, p.53). The continued framing of students as consumers and education as a product on a societal level serves to reinforce the extreme difficulty universities have to go through in order to gain funds in the first place.
The reframing of the main goal of education to be job attainment, and training for a future life within the market has led to a focus on optimizing the existing students in the country for profit rather than caring about quality of life. If pressure did not exist to secure funding for universities, they would have never told students to purchase accommodation with non cancellable contracts. Students wouldn’t have been asked to return to halls at the epicenter of the outbreak with zero instruction hours in the entire year. However, the necessity of securing funding within a brutal market system means these decisions which ultimately hurt many students were made.
These systems uniquely frame these issues as individual. Curtis describes how depression and anxiety are on the rise, but the current system in place is simply to patch patients up and make them more adept to handle society itself (Curtis, 2021). This narrow example of mental health is clearly applicable to wider society. Deaths of despair are on the rise in places largely left behind by the new neoliberal order.
Neoliberalism is an extension of liberal values of individualism and freedom applied to the market space. These manifest most often as a focus on free market capitalism and economic liberalisation (sometimes in the form of austerity or deregulation) (Fisher, 2009, p.43). This emphasis leads to the implementation of markets in places previously untouched by such a form of organisation: the eventual result is a heavy focus on individualism and individual achievement.
Capitalism particularly manifested as neoliberalism has resulted in a great detriment to many demographics. For example, rising inequality has further exacerbated issues with food insecurity and (especially in the case of the United States) access to healthcare. Austerity itself has claimed lives due to the cutting of social services, hurting disproportionately those deemed at the bottom of society (Fisher, 2009, p.53).
While the destruction of the communal fabric in favor of the individual does disproportionately hurt the poorest, individualism takes its toll on all parts of society. The opportunities presented by neoliberal individualism afford great opportunity. However, with individualism comes the cost of diminished community. Curtis describes the steady uptake of anxiety medication in American housewives in the 1950’s in order to cope with the isolation resulting from the individualism pushed by neoliberal thought (Curtis, 2021). This case study of isolation is simply the canary in the coal mine for the reality of many: a difficulty with connection, a lack of outstanding easy to access community, and a difficulty with the mental health issues which result from this.
A neoliberal system, however, would interpret the isolation of the 50’s housewives as an individual problem to be treated by the consumption of a pharmaceutical. This focus on an individual framework of mental health neglects the wider problem in society. Perhaps it is not only due to individual fault that depression and anxiety arise: society itself has become depressing and anxious (Fisher, 2009, p.28). The ability to cope with these issues is, however, diminished by the loss of community precipitated by an emphasis on individualism.
Individual analysis of mental health taking precedence over all other modes of analysis is simply one instance in which capitalist realism continues to exacerbate social ills without alternative (Curtis, 2021). The individualist would view the depressed and the anxious as anomalous from society. I, however, assert that rather than signs of a system in need of reform, this framework of mental health simply hides the fact that society is a product of collective will and can therefore be built to function in a different way.
The idea that there is no alternative to capitalism ultimately reinforces the present system and prevents meaningful critique with which to alter it. Combined with a strong culture of individualism, the ability to dream of new futures is severely hindered. There appears to be no alternative to capitalism. Fisher echoes Adorno when he argues that attempts to subvert capitalism whether in film or education are simply going to reinforce the already existing system. They do not provide a new conception of what could be, and this stagnation permeates throughout wider culture.
As Curtis quotes at the beginning of his film, “the ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make. And could just as easily make differently” (Curtis, 2021). The fungibility of the world is a truth obscured by an individualistic lens embraced after the Thatcher years. In viewing capitalism as a system with no alternative, we obscure this truth from ourselves and from others. However, in order to move beyond stagnation, it is crucial to embrace the world itself as our construction--one which is neither inevitable nor necessarily warranted.
Adorno, T. (1947) The Dialectic of Enlightenment. Verso Books: London
Can’t Get You Out of My Head. (2021) [Online]. England: BBC. Viewed on iPlayer
Fisher, M. (2009) Capitalist Realism. Zero Books: London
IMDB (2020) WorldWide Box Office. Available at: https://www.boxofficemojo.com/year/world/1978/ (Accessed 17th of April, 2021)