The Political Economy of Mark Fisher

From Capitalist Realism to Acid Communism, we shouldn’t overlook Fisher’s impact on political economy

Source: We Are Plan C

I believe, in time, the vastness and significance of Mark Fisher’s contribution will permeate throughout the social sciences — and economics in particular — with the ferocity of a meteor impacting the Earth. Fisher is, in my opinion, a man whose work has done much for the study of political economy, though lacks that distinction as his work resembles little of the political economy we recognise today.

Indeed, political economy itself is a concept that is stretched thin through its misuse and is increasingly suffocated by the expansion of economics on the one hand, and cultural theory on the other. However, insofar as economics (and economic rationale via the concept of cost-benefit analysis) has been allowed to penetrate into every corner of modern society, I would suggest we economists, political or otherwise, should accept the insights of cultural critics — and Fisher in particular — and in doing so, may originate a new, or at least refreshed, political economy.

I should say, I maintain a not insignificant degree of disdain for much cultural criticism, on two counts.

Firstly, it is very easy to criticise culture, and because it is easy, there has been a proliferation of bad cultural criticism, aided in no small part by the internet. This, I should note, is not the fault of academic cultural critics, who I find exercise significantly more talent and tactfulness than one’s typical internet commentator.

Secondly, insofar as I am an economically-minded person, and not a cultural critic, I find some cultural criticism not immediately relevant to me. That is not to say it is not relevant; only that, from my perspective, the relevance is lacking. Should a lack of relevant content reach a critical mass, one might find themselves dismissing the study of culture all together. This is both a mistake, and — in my opinion — an admission of one’s ignorance of how ideas may manifest significance for others.

Mark Fisher was an excellent cultural critic, and one that allowed himself to indulge in the criticism of specific art, but always pulled back to a bigger picture. The significance of Fisher to political economy is one which I think should not be overlooked. His work on collective imagination, or the lack thereof, (what Berardi has called “impotence”) surely speaks to the political economy mindset of modes of production.

We can abandon any anti-capitalist sentiments Fisher may have held (though in my opinion, the study of political economy is aided by abandoning a capital realist mindset and allowing oneself to explore alternative politico-economic relations) and still see this as important.

The ability for societies to originate and distribute new ideas is intimately tied to a well-functioning, productive economy (i.e. innovation), and has even been used as a defence of liberal principles (see, for instance, Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty) and as an explanation for the formation of explicit class identities (see, for instance, Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class).

Let’s take a moment and assume that culture and any other forthcoming criticism of it is emergent from the economic system. For instance, the Marvel movies largely appeal to mass consumerism, which is both facilitated by modern production processes (from the Hollywood infrastructure to the manufacture of merchandise), and paid tribute to by a continuous output of sequels, which allow the process to continue. We could analyse the economics of film production purely as an economic concept and reduce the changing tastes of the masses down to arbitrary level of demand which is to be met by supply.

Or, we could consider that changing tastes are actually a function of culture, and so could be better understood through a consideration of culture, but also that the ideas which flow through culture emerge from the economics (e.g. “they made a lot of money on this film, so it must have been pretty good”). This, of course, is incomplete; the ideas which flow through economics also emerge from the culture (e.g. “these movies are bad because they are just glorified commercials”).

Economics, and the study of production, baselessly wanders around as if it is separate from the world on which it acts; as if it is a product of nature rather than a product of society. This is a contentious stance which might spark endless debate, and frankly, it’s one I find quickly becomes very boring and pedantic. The reason I bring it up is because, if we accept it, Fisher challenges us with a fascinating question: what if the economic mode of production (i.e. capitalism) has rendered ineffective our ability to originate new ideas which would subsequently evolve the mode of production?

What if we’re stuck? What if, to put it in Fisher’s hauntological framing, the future has been cancelled?

Now, this short piece is not intended to be an answer to this question (though, if pushed, I would ponder whether the transformation of the internet from a new frontier in subversive and punk culture (see, for instance, Wark’s The Hacker Manifesto) to one which is single-mindedly supercharged to endless and incrementally improve advertising doesn’t betray some sense of — to use Fisher’s words — a lost future). My intention, from the outset, has been to make the case that Fisher’s arguments about the loss of imaginative vitality and the commercialisation of creative areas (or industries; see, for instance, Mould’s Against Creativity) has a political economy dimension and — from a perspective political economy– a very significant one at that.

Fisher’s immediate proposal, acid communism, supposed to supercharge the cultural, and not the economic, imperatives of our society, and in doing so, to produce a reimagining of the economic organisation of our societies (i.e. to re-instate the future).

His long-term proposal, which Fisher dubbed “red plenty” (see, for instance, Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism), was to separate or liberate the culture sphere from the economic entirely, by re-organising the economic such that the necessities of life were taken care of, and the development of art and culture could proceed without economic anchors or impediments.

Again, the validity of these ideas is not the subject of discussion in this article; but the existence of these ideas, and the revolutionary challenge of imagination they pose for political economy in particular (insofar as political economy is the study of the distribution of surplus production), is demonstrative of this article’s central argument, namely the significance of Fisher to political economy.

Because he is.

Behavioural Science Fellow at the LSE. Personal Blog. twitter.com/stuart_mmills

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