What can you change in your world if nothing is changeable? You may hate what you do, where you are, and who you’ve become, but this hyper-individualist, addictively consumerist, at best dull and at worst agonizing 21st-century life path obscures all else. While the finances strangle us, let the mindlessness of it all blur together and reject the thought that something should be different. If this is the peak of humanity’s grand experiment, how could you be suffering? Yet, right when you begin to comprehend the vastness of not just your but everyone’s suffering as a necessary component in this vast system that is slowly squeezing the life out of all of us, you also wonder how it could be any different.
These thoughts permeated most of my day-to-day life over the last year. Walking the path where I bend to the will of capital bled me until I couldn’t get through the day. I assumed I was living the only life I could create for myself in the modern world. Employment above all else, including myself. Concern, confusion, and resentment seeped through everything until I had no way to deny that something was wrong.
This realization resonates with many of my peers as we attempt to transition from higher education to the workforce, from short-term to long-term planning and the naïve freedom of youth to the chains of adulthood. We identify the faults emerging around us, within us, and we may even discuss this among ourselves as we vote for DSA-endorsed candidates. Nevertheless, I often sense a pervasive longing to know: do we have any other options? For the first few years of Covid and my employment, I didn’t think so. I understand now that the first step was to change my perspective.
I had heard of Capitalist Realism by the late Mark Fisher, but it took some time before I finally picked it up. Navigating my own personal transformation during this time, Fisher’s words provided a framework that helped me see that much of what I was struggling over was a response to capitalism, rather than a purely individualistic issue. The inability to imagine a different world is part of what keeps us trapped here.
“Capitalist realism,” as defined by Fisher, is the inability to imagine an alternative system to capitalism. Your dissatisfaction, frustrations, and concerns may be honest, but society has already found the optimal solution through neoliberal capitalist practices and your struggles are merely a byproduct of problems inherent in all of humanity, regardless of the structures we utilize. Get used to it. Get over it.
Fisher gave language to the contradictions I saw within myself and others. Let me lay out a few examples.
- Business ontology: the idea that everything should be run like a business. This permeated discussions between my peers and me so deeply that money-making concerns scrutinized every option into dust. Even everyday hobbies only mattered as passive income possibilities. Everything is subsumed into a system of economic value and provided with monetary tags, leaving personal endeavors to wither under the weight of bills and paychecks.
- Mental illness is at a record high among youth and young adults. However, the cause is reduced to personal failure if an individual cannot find satisfaction in the contemporary world. These health concerns are only rectifiable with medication and mindfulness practices, ultimately to treat the symptoms, not the cause. Fisher argues that we are seeing a crisis as a response to the instability and dysfunctional nature of capitalism. For example, the boom and bust nature of our current economic system places us all at threat of losing our financial security, yet we are still expected to perform at a high level regardless of such a burden. Your coworker gets laid off and now you must pick up the slack. This burden is placed on each person to twist themselves into accepting this reality instead of fighting to change it. This isn’t to say that individual solutions can’t help, but that the mental illness epidemic has sociological roots. Something has to be wrong if everyone is unhappy.
- Fisher, quoting Slavoj Zizek, writes on how “anti-capitalism is disseminated in capitalism.” Anti-capitalist arguments emerge in media and products, placating concerns with a dose of self-awareness. Frustration with capitalism is channeled through a consumer experience where we may feel satisfaction through indulgence or recognition, rather than activism. The capitalist exploits the socialist characters on the TV show that disagree with them, and the audience is none the wiser, for we already bought the poster.
- Even when someone sees the bureaucratic structure for what it is, individuals get absorbed into the structure as they move up or “buy in,” losing the urge to change for one reason or another. The inefficiencies and confusions that must be addressed are not individualistic problems. Rather, these issues lower-level employees want to solve permeate the structure itself. Fisher writes not of bad managers, but of bad management. As he says, “While the structure remains, the vices will reproduce themselves.” How could we expect a single new manager to change it all? How could anyone change anything by themselves?
What I’ve listed above are only a few ideas touched on by Fisher in this work. Nevertheless, I was struck by how his descriptions resonated with my personal experience. Every possible future endeavor must be run like a business. If I can’t make money, why bother? We are stressed by constant layoffs and inconsistent work-life balance, yet I must only solve this struggle through daily meditation and SSRIs. All our favorite characters scoff at the bourgeoisie, but we buy the merch from corporations paying workers slave wages overseas. Even when we want to create change within these socioeconomic structures, we only become another support beam to uphold the status quo.
Fisher resonated with me because he’s right. No wonder we feel so helpless.
Thankfully, Fisher does not leave us without answers. He tells us, “[Capitalism] would be nothing without our cooperation.” Capitalism requires us to believe there is no other option. If we choose to believe, to know, that the future of our world can be shifted, then we are liberated from isolation and confusion. As young members of our communities, my peers and I must know better than to get lost in hopelessness. We already understand the looming climate crisis, wealth inequality, and diminishing healthcare access, among many more issues, and we already know that our capitalistic system is not the solution to the problems it caused. We can choose to no longer cooperate and perpetuate poisoned realism.
This mindset freed me from the chains of capitalist realism, and the walls of dejected solitude fell. Joining the DSA was the first step for me to find new solutions and open my imagination to the reality of a new world. Instead of facing these realizations alone, I saw solidarity against capitalism in the people that make up this organization and fight for us in picket lines, courthouses, and capitol buildings, to name a few.
For all the rest of my exhausted peers, scared coworkers, and devastated community members, I see new opportunities ahead in community work, political advocacy, and ultimately solidarity with the working class and the marginalized. Grounded in the belief that we can imagine a better world, and we can work together to make it happen, we no longer must suffer in silence, but instead, channel our disaffection away from ourselves and refocus it on the real problem, as Fisher urges us: the capitalist system.
By Sara R