Saturday 4 September 2021

Two Kinds of Capitalist Realism

In Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher talks about how capitalism constitutes the horizon of the possible. Picking up and popularising Fredric Jameson's 'it's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism', he describes a habit of mind, a sensibility, that is entirely defined by the demands and rationalities of the system. This isn't the same as saying there is no alternative politics or imaginaries or that people can't resist capitalism, but rather this is an imaginary, and the dominant one at that, unable to conceive of differing imaginaries. Its sense of the real is all there is, nothing else. Capitalist realism then is more than "ideology" or, horror of horrors, "false class consciousness", but habits of thought, practices, doxa cultivated, reinforced, and reiterated relationally. Rarely does capitalist realism announce itself as something to be accepted or rejected, but proceeds and insinuates by a multiplicity of contacts. It works precisely because it appears spontaneous and natural, though its current manifestation has a history and a process of conscious political constitution by generations of policy makers, elected and not.

We can talk about varieties of capitalist realism at different times and places, but today capitalist realism in British politics manifests in two policy-making forms. There is "conventional" capitalist realism as it presents itself to self-defined progressives, centrists, and technocrats. There's no point wasting time talking about alternatives when capitalism is the only game in town, so the horizon of centre left politics is determined by presenting as better managers of the system. The growth imperative is never questioned. What's good for business is good for society. But there are irrationalities and impurities in the system, and the task of a reforming government is to legislate away the difficulties and run the state as if it's GB plc. Equality as a virtue is defined by opportunity, not outcomes. Social justice is understood by "inclusion" and removing barriers to "aspiration", of levelling the playing field so, in effect, we're all equal before capital. Capitalism then assumes abstract proportions, a knowable abstract machine, that will work the best when the right levers are pulled in the right order. This mindset is one you are more likely to find among Labour and the the Liberal Democrats than the Tories, with slight permutations.

Then there is the form of capitalist realism that doesn't often get talked about. What might be more properly called bourgeois realism. Its logics are rarely spelled out, and prefers to use the language of conventional capitalist realism. George Osborne, for example, was a past master at this. Growth, growth, growth, and when Tory austerity undermined their stated objective, they either made up nonsense about paying down the debt or asserted their objectives as if it was evidence. They weren't interested in justifying what they were doing, because at a gut level they knew what they were doing was unjustifiable: heightening inequality and strengthening the whip hand of capital over labour. Tory governments since have not departed from putting the bourgeois class interest before the abstract machine of a fair and technocratic capitalism, hence why Boris Johnson can abandon what were previously considered touchstones of capitalist realism. If state largesse and selective industrial activism suits the sectional interests of the class he leads better than deregulation, privatisation, and more markets, then this is what bourgeois realism will go for.

In his book on Thatcherism, Alexander Gallas makes a distinction between economic order politics and class politics and uses these to periodise the governments from 1979 to the Blair years. He argues at different times the Tories pitched toward outright class politics to smash the labour movement, and concentrated more on the economy in conventional capitalist realist terms as they were gearing up for their assault and after the trade union dragon had been slain. But thinking through this distinction via the two kinds of capitalist realism allows for finer grained analysis of government strategy on a by policy and by politician basis. It also recognises how, despite the two forms broadly mapping onto historic party associations, each can and do at times adopt the realism of the other. The Labour right's scorched earth cynicism is their own form of bourgeois realism, pared down to pathetic self-interest and struggling to ensure Labour is fit for capital's endorsement. Something we saw with liberal remainia too. And now, especially after winning big in former Labour strongholds, new Tory MPs from less than well-heeled backgrounds find themselves thinking through politics in conventional realist terms and find it baffling how the party of business is pushing Universal Credit cuts and National Insurance hikes to pay for adult social care, measures that would suck growth out of these places.

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Blissex said...

«There's no point wasting time talking about alternatives when capitalism is the only game in town»

Well IIRC that beardy guy said that "capitalism" in the sense of work-for-hire is here to stay, the task is to improve it by aiding the transition from narrowly owned (shareholders) capitalism to widely owned (workers) capitalism.

The question is how to deal with narrowly owned capitalism, and there the question is: "chto delat?"/"what to do?" while waiting (it could be a few more centuries...) for that transition. History shows that the slice that that the private owners of capital extract is negotiable, but that is the result of hard negotiation, not bleating about "fairness". So while waiting for the transition, it is too futile to plan for the glorious socialist future, and it is too silly to just bend over on the assumption that the degree of extraction is not negotiable.

The chinese elites seem for example to taking seriously their concept of the "first stages towards socialism", we'll how that goes.

«so the horizon of centre left politics is determined by presenting as better managers of the system»

That is the horizon of right-wing politics, the Militant Mandelsoncy for example. The left, whether centre-left or left or far left, is always *also* about pushing, hard or harder, for less extraction by the private owners of capital, a better deal for workers. Even Gordon Brown is on that side.

«The growth imperative is never questioned.»

That is pretty essential if population grows, unless the goal is a "soylent green" society, and if one wants to be a good internationalist and have open immigration, population will grow a lot in developed countries. The question is the type of growth, in particular the impact on the carrying capacity (AKA "the environment").

Blissex said...

«What's good for business is good for society.»

What's good for business is certainly good for society, and what is good for capital is good for proletarians. It is business that creates products and pays wages, and it is capital that enables higher value added.

To argue otherwise is to fall for the prevarication by rentier propaganda that business and capital rentiers are the same as business and capital, confusing landowners and shareholders with the capital businesses from which they extract their rents.

Words matter: workers understand very well that their wages are paid out of the productivity enabled by capital, not by capital rentiers, that the stuff they consume is produced by the businesses they work in, not by business rentiers, and don't like anti-business, anti-capital attitudes, and being depicted by the right as "anti-business" damages the left,

Consider Corbyn and McDonnell: probably the most pro-business, pro-capital politicians for several decades, with a manifesto also probably the most pro-business, pro-capital for several decades. Not the same as being in favour of more extraction by business and capital rentiers, and indeed the propagandists of the latter fought hard against Corbyn, often precisely because of his being so pro-business, pro-capital.

Blissex said...

«new Tory MPs from less than well-heeled backgrounds find themselves thinking through politics in conventional realist terms and find it baffling how the party of business»

The Conservatives stopped being the party of business, and even of business rentiers, decades ago, because business rentierism is so much less profitable than finance and property rentierism.

My impression is that in books and in speeches and presumably in behind the scenes maneuvering the sad pathetic leftovers of the business faction of "The Establishment", people like John Major, John Kay, and even the latter day version of Mervyn King, are horrified by the brutal asset stripping that followed the takeover by the finance+property lobby, and are trying to push back. But not just working "losers" but even many businesses are strangled by colossal property costs. The next big thing in London is "fintech", an euphemism for taking a cut of every possible transaction.

These quotes are still very relevant:

Boris Johnson: «I think the vast majority will want to put their pots into the market with the greatest yield over the past 40 years – and that is property»

«Speaking about his first year in business with Lord Sugar, Mark Wright, the winner of last year’s Apprentice, said the Amstrad founder had given him tips on creating long-term wealth “Lord Sugar said you make money from property and do business for fun.”»

«Haldane believes that property is a better bet for retirement planning than a pension. “It ought to be pension but it’s almost certainly property,” he said. “As long as we continue not to build anything like as many houses in this country as we need to ... we will see what we’ve had for the better part of a generation, which is house prices relentlessly heading north.”»

No business or capital investment can beat speculating in property deeds, a security the doubles in price every 7-10 years, can be bought on 10-20 times leverage at a low interest rate of 2-3%, and is in practice government backstopped. The stock market is not far from that (except that retail speculators in stocks cannot yet lever up as easily as for property).

BCFG said...

"it's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism"

This is so 1990. In the here and now I am literally counting the days.

"It is business that creates products and pays wages"

No, its the workers in those businesses that create products (ones that more often than not serve no need whatsoever btw) and under capitalism they get a wage for this. They get a wage because under capitalism workers have been freed from the worrisome responsibility of owning the means of production.

In the coming war on China can I please ask that comrades fully support China and do everything in their power to assist in the war effort.