Capitalist realism

August 12, 2020

A little over 500 years ago, Europeans, driven by a lust for riches and enabled by new technologies, colonized the Americas and set about making them productive in an entirely new way.The reasonably...

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A little over 500 years ago, Europeans, driven by a lust for riches and enabled by new technologies, colonized the Americas and set about making them productive in an entirely new way.

The reasonably self-sustaining economies of the indigenous peoples were swept away and the organic and mineral resources of their lands were incorporated into systems of production that generated surplus wealth, by serving newly established markets in the Americas and around the world. Thus, was the New World enfolded into the then emerging system of capitalism.

In the early 1980s, Margaret Thatcher was fond, in defending her policies, of stating emphatically that, ‘There Is No Alternative.’ Establishing this kind of rhetorical endgame became her way of cutting off debate and signaling an iron-willed determination to pursue her chosen plan of action.

For almost forty years, the neoliberal states of the world, including those in Western Europe, the Americas and parts of Asia, have lived by her credo and refused to countenance any alternative to the privatization of social services; the globalization of trade, tourism and culture; and the financialization of everything. Now enabled by technologies unimaginable in the fifteenth century, these arrangements of our social, political and economic life encourage rapacious production by corporations serving ever-increasing popular consumption. The corporations, in turn, richly reward their executives while, for the most part, paying poverty wages to their employees.

This is the system which Mark Fisher describes in 'Capitalist Realism' (2009) in which capital is exposed as it really is, “…rapacious, indifferent, inhuman.” Harking back to the 1980’s, as neoliberalism was being established in Britain, Fisher writes, “Margaret Thatcher’s doctrine that, ‘There Is No Alternative’ – as succinct a slogan of capitalist realism as you could hope for – became a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Following the financial crash of 2008, there were hopes that the system might be undermined, but the massive scale of the bank bailouts reaffirmed its inevitable survival and were a resounding vindication of her dictum.

Between the global shutdown in response to the Covid pandemic and some imagined future when communities around the world are all fully reopened, there is the opportunity to review the narratives that underpin neoliberalism – the ideology that supports current, post-industrial, capitalism.

In the United States, this time of sheltering from the ravening appetite of the virus has been replete with street violence, urban occupation, sloganeering, wheat-pasting, spray painted graffiti, and the physical destruction of public monuments.

This broadly based unrest recapitulates the historical record of protest since the 1960s. Racial injustice, economic injustice, police brutality and degradation of the environment remain at the forefront of the protesters’, and the wider public’s, concerns. But something new has arisen.

The public iconography of racism and oppression which reflects the progress of Western civilization through the New World, is being dismantled. The monuments that often memorialize those responsible for the most egregious acts of commercial exploitation and extraction, or the military practice of genocide, or the defense of enslavement, are being excised from the public square.

Excerpted from: 'The Covid Interregnum'.

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