In Mark Fisher’s later political writings, he remarked in regard to Trump and Brexit, “it isn’t capitalism that is being rejected in these inchoate revolts, but realism.” If, as there is evidence to argue is the case, we are now witnessing the breakdown of capitalist realism — the belief that there is no alternative to capitalism — Fisher’s observation reminds us of a blatantly obvious point: capitalist realism need not end with capitalism, only with reality.
By reality, it is easier to state what I do not mean. I do not mean the end of the world, or really the end of any class, cultural or political hierarchies. If anything, I would argue, the end of reality is proving to be extremely boring and extremely limited in its potential. A victim of the same hauntology which produced it.
Here is an example. Part of the American dream is the belief that anyone, of any background, can become president. While coming from wealth and privilege, Donald Trump is perhaps a most perverse sense of the apparent truth in this belief, having neither the intelligence nor the grace which have become such obvious pre-requisites for the office it was unnecessary to recount them previously. Yet it is the irrelevance of these qualities which Trump demonstrates which has destroyed the myth of the president. Someone, indeed anyone, can occupy the office of president, but not because of ubiquitous opportunity and meritocracy, but because the qualifications for applying were actually much higher is necessary.
This is one aspect of the simultaneous death and continuity of reality. Another is the dramatization of the news. This is an easy target; if one finds the news quite so offensive, or simply exhausting, turn it off. I know I have. To the conscientious citizen this is a blasphemous statement, of course, but here’s my argument. The rendering of the news as drama blurs the line between fact and fiction. This is a dangerous place for facts.
To be clear, I am not talking about fake news, which is mostly a phenomenon popularised today to explain to technocrats — and tangentially the rest of us — why reality is dying. I am confident there has always been fake news, and always people susceptible to it. I am also confident that people can judge for themselves, even if the conclusions they reach are flawed, misinformed, or contrary to my own. Society is disagreement. Fake news is not the danger. The danger of facts masquerading as fiction is the illusion of a master.
Movies have masters. There are writers and directors, producers and cinematographers. No matter how much tension, no matter how much excitement or action or terror is imbued in the viewer, no matter how many twists and turns and plot hangers, the drama ends. The writers pen the final word. The director calls the wrap. Those emotions, while genuine, are also stage managed. Controlled. And we as viewers are simply passive watchers, transported by others and vulnerable because we accept vulnerability — we trust the writers and directors to carry us to the end. We trust that whatever happens, after the credits role, regular programming will resume.
Who occupies this role in reality media? Yes, there are editors, journalists, hacks and commentators, all of whom contribute to crafting narratives. But that’s a misnomer, like saying the characters in a movie crafted the narrative. Their actions convey meaning, but these media characters are characters. The reality media has no writer. There is no director. The danger of mixing facts with fiction is we start to see reality as managed fiction. We become detached, disenfranchised. Emancipated from a reality we are still so very much invested in, but no longer as workers, citizens or individuals, but as viewers. And the power to craft narratives — to shape our reality — is given up in exchange for the imagination of an illusory writer.
If we know reality is dead, why don’t we do anything about it. Evgeny Morozov in The Net Delusion offers a good explanation. At the dawn of the internet age, Morozov notes, there was tremendous hope in democratic countries that the proliferation of information would emancipate various peoples from oppressive regimes. Instead, the people did what most people do on the internet; watched videos, shared posts on social media, laughed at memes. For Morozov, the West failed to realise that the ‘freedoms’ of the internet could just as easily be incorporated into the arsenals of regimes.
I think the TV show Black Mirror is exemplar of this; of the zombie state of reality. For a start, each episode is different, though the premise remains the same — some unnerving, self-reflection invoking techno-dystopian tale. Even on the occasion that this trend is broken, the same effect is achieved, only on a meta-level: I thought I knew this ever-changing show, but I guess I don’t… Black Mirror is successful because it appeals to feelings we can all relate to. We all know what Donald Trump is doing is not quite right, that the way the news acts is not OK, that the world we thought we knew is now one we’re pretty sure we don’t.
In each episode, Black Mirror offers a possible explanation for these feelings. Maybe it’s surveillance, maybe it’s mob mentality, maybe it’s the valorisation of fame? This is what makes Black Mirror comfort food, and it is why I — personally — dislike the show. It is easy to diagnose the same problem over and over again, but it is hard to find a solution.
This is the despair at the heart of hauntology — to oversimplify, the future has been cancelled. Reality is dead, but the post-real is nowhere to be seen. It’s why Fisher’s Capitalist Realism is so obsessed with imagining new futures, and why those who oppose the zombification of reality imagine post-capitalist futures (Inventing the Future, Four Futures, Fully Automated Luxury Communism etc), and why Fisher’s unfinished work Acid Communism is so intriguing as a concept.
Any proposed solution to society’s (by which I broadly mean the West’s) malaise that seeks to course correct rather than reinvent will find itself tomorrow’s diagnosis of the problem. As in Kafka’s great bureaucracy, the system sustains itself through the continuity of queues and forms and corridor footsteps. But like all other zombies, I offer no solution, for the diagnosis is easy, and the solution is hard.