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Mark Fisher, Neoliberalism and The Hall of Mirrors

By Guy Mankowski.

Mark Fisher’s writing succinctly summarised the confusing, alienating, and hypocritical narratives we find ourselves immersed in in 2017. I was so shocked to hear of his death yesterday that I decided to write a piece to further spread the word about his work. I never met Fisher; so do not fear that this piece will stray into subtle manoeuvring about how intimate I was to a now absent figure.

Fisher’s theories stemmed from his use of the term ‘Capitalist Realism’, a term he used to describe the current global political situation. The Capitalist Realist idea he proposed is a critique of neoliberalism, that served also to describe new forms of government which apply the logic of capitalism. Fisher proposed that within a capitalist framework there is no space to conceive of alternative forms of social structures – any alternative ideas are absorbed within the overarching narrative of Capitalism. This troubled Fisher, and when I read his work I realised it troubled me too.

I see within his critique of Capitalist Realism seeds of insight that have allowed me to understand the post-truth era. An era in which spin, lies and institutional deceit have paralysed the faith the masses have in the powers that rule over them. Buried truths about the Iraq War, the NHS, child abuse enquiries and the banking crisis have eroded the trust which acts as an adhesive to hold society together. Put simply: I can live with a world in which bad things happen if I can be comforted by the idea that the bad things won’t happen again, and that they will be fixed. But my understanding of Capitalist Realism helped me understand that enquiries are kicked into the long grass, ugly truths are buried, and inconveniences (such as the empirical flaws in Jeremy Hunt’s ‘Weekend Effect’) are overlooked if it means that those in power remain in power. One of powers greatest tools is the belief that it is self-evident. We see this feature in Fisher’s description of neo-liberalism.

In his book Ghosts Of My Life he eloquently reframed the work of artists such as Joy Division and Burial to try and understand (and to an extent lament) the lost futures portrayed their work. Neoliberal policies deny the realisation of alternative futures, instead forcing a recreation of past moments until they become stultifying. Margaret Thatcher may have argued that ‘there was no alternative’ to neoliberalism, but given the instability of the world we now live in I think she was wrong. Fisher argued this far more eloquently, and I eagerly awaited the opportunity to read any forthcoming work in which he would theorize about future alternatives. He also brought into his analyses various epiphenomena, such the struggles of the NHS and the Jimmy Savile scandal, both of which I had found myself deeply disturbed by. Amongst the chaos of early 2017 I now see that my preoccupation with these subject matters reflected my confusion at the reality I find myself in. It seemed apparent to me that Savile’s abuse, and the on-going destruction of the NHS, are predicated upon an institutional denial of the truth, something that Capitalism Realist allows as a methodology that absorbs any threats to it. Fisher gave us a conceptual framework to understand the hall of the mirrors that the powerful have placed us within. We see this methodology at work in the rise of Donald Trump.

I was chatting recently with friends in the pub about the recent blackmail revelations regarding Trump, and we debated on whether or not there was anything that could be revealed about Trump which could bring him down. In a sense he is a phoenix rising from the ashes of the neo-liberal project (and like all forms of governance, neoliberalism is just a project). Trump absorbs any threats and argues his presence to be self-evidently justified ‘just because.’ We are living in an era in which the unacceptable is expected to be accepted ‘just because’ certain people say so.

In recent days I have had long conversations with other people – authors, aspiring poets and academics- about the instability of the age we live in, and as a result I reached certain conclusions. Only to find that Fisher had done the same, many months ago, and with an elegant vitriol that I could only admire. In these conversations, highly capable people told me that they did not see the point in them pursuing their ambitions to be academics. They felt that the financial imperatives of universities (as a result of short term, neo-liberal thinking) meant that the holistic, supportive working environment they had been led to believe that postgraduate education would offer does not exist. The custodians of higher education have allowed bad debt, short-term gains, and a lack of investment in students to chip away at the features of the postgraduate education that made it worthwhile. I believe those custodians should realise that they have defaulted on their responsibility. I wonder how they would have responded if their parents had done the same?

I have had similar conversations with friends wanting to write fiction, journalism or poetry. They echo the concerns of my academic colleagues, and rightly believe that publication will no longer lead to further publication, or money, or (dare we say it) status. They believe that, like the academic world, the publishing world has become one in which they cannot vocationally or financially progress. It is non-linear, and non-meritocratic, just like so many fields in which short-term financial gains have been prioritised. These friends of mine believe that in their engagement with the publishing world they will be treated as inconveniences, subject to wildly varying advice on what they should write and how they should advance. Advised in dismissive tones to be content providers who should be simply grateful for any exposure and scorned for having financial needs. I have known this feeling myself. Having gone against the advice bitterly given in a Will Self lecture, I have written for magazines and journals for free and just been glad to have my work featured. My parents have met news of my journalistic forays with the stock response of ‘and what did they pay you?’ But when I have pursued such financial concerns with my publishers I have been shocked at the harshness with which any queries about finance recompense have been met. It is as if for the artistic class money needs to be a source of shame, when for the ruling class it is an unapologetic reality. Fisher was aware of the atomisation of the academic and publishing world. He believed that the commodification of education was a result of a deliberate crushing of class-consciousness. He wrote about how:

One of the most successful tactics of the ruling class has been responsibilisation. Each individual member of the subordinate class is encouraged into feeling that their poverty, lack of opportunities, or unemployment, is their fault and their fault alone.

He focused on this feeling as a result of class and the inherent doubt it sows. He also noted that in the present day people find themselves in a double bind. Told to believe that it is within every individual’s power to make themselves whatever they want to be, and yet forced to accept, by an increasingly brutal world, that they cannot expect pay and comfort which they saw previous generations enjoyed, particularly for artistic endeavours. He wrote of how, in our present neo-liberal conditions, stagnated wages, lack of secure housing, and zero hours contracts have led to people feeling a mass sense of insecurity and depression which, they have further been led to believe they are responsible for. He said:

The NHS, like the education system and other public services, has been forced to try to deal with the social and psychic damage caused by the deliberate destruction of solidarity and security.

People have been made to feel individually responsible for a sense of depression that society has at least contributed to, and they have then been told to look to institutions such as the NHS to fix these ailments. Only to now find that such institutions are being destroyed. Whatever institutions we were raised to believe in – whether it was the Catholic Church, or the NHS – we have now been presented shocking truths about these institutions that make us doubt they can offer us shelter. On a moral or financial level their foundations have been shaken. So we too often live in a secular landscape of shifting sands.

The financial and institutional insecurities we see around us could be tolerable; perhaps, if we did not see that the situation was getting worse. I have watched with a surreal sense of horror, how health care workers and their representatives, as well as patients and MP’s, have flagged with increasing urgency cases that prove the NHS is crumbling. Only to see the likes of Theresa May bat away the incidences presented to them as isolated ones, whilst increasing the pressure on already buckling services. One of the most insidious elements of the world Fisher described is that the guardians of neo-liberalism have realised that the people are so disempowered that they will not prise them from positions that they then use to further fragment society for profit. Fisher quoted psychologist Oliver James, who wrote in The Selfish Capitalist, that we are raised to think ‘if you do not succeed, there is only one person to blame.’ I think we should take Fisher’s advice that ‘it’s high time that the blame was placed elsewhere.’

I have argued many times with members of the baby boomer generation, who enjoyed good wages, housing and long-term employment contracts (not to mention publishing advances) which my generation can only dream of, pulled up the ladder behind them. They should take their share of the blame, and in resisting this blame that generation only delay possible solutions. I also think my generation needs to take on the challenge, and preserve the sanctity of words not by being easily offended, but by being easily roused to action. In his farewell speech Barack Obama placed his hope in a future generation, which he believed to be ‘unselfish.’ I too have optimism in the future. Fisher described with great clarity the Reality we are in. It is time to accept the reality he described and fight it, by refuting that there is no alternative.


Guy Mankowski is an academic whose PhD concerned post-punk literature. He is also the author of How I Left The National Grid: A post-punk novel. His latest novel, An Honest Deceit, was published in 2016.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, January 15th, 2017.