1. It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism
In one of the key scenes in Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men, Clive Owen’s character, Theo, visits a friend at Battersea Power Station, which is now some combination of government building and private collection. Cultural treasures –Michelangelo’s David, Picasso’s Guernica, Pink Floyd’s inflatable pig – are preserved in a building that is itself a refurbished heritage artifact. This is our only glimpse into the lives of the elite, holed up against the effects of a catastrophe which has caused mass sterility: no children have been born for a generation.
Theo asks the question, ‘how all this can matter if there will be no-one to see it?’ The alibi can no longer be future generations, since there will be none. The response is nihilistic hedonism: ‘I try not to think about it’.
What is unique about the dystopia in Children of Men is that it is specific to late capitalism. This isn’t the familiar totalitarian scenario routinely trotted out in cinematic dystopias (see, for example, James McTeigue’s 2005 V for Vendetta). In the P.D. James novel on which the film is based, democracy is suspended and the country is ruled over by a self-appointed Warden, but, wisely, the film downplays all this. For all that we know, the authoritarian measures that are everywhere in place could have been implemented within a political structure that remains, notionally, democratic. The War on Terror has prepared us for such a development: the normalization of crisis produces a situation in which the repealing of measures brought in to deal with an emergency becomes unimaginable (when will the war be over?)
Watching Children of Men, we are inevitably reminded of the phrase attributed to Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. That slogan captures precisely what I mean by ‘capitalist realism’: the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.
Once, dystopian films and novels were exercises in such acts of imagination – the disasters they depicted acting as narrative pretext for the emergence of different ways of living. Not so in Children of Men. The world that it projects seems more like an extrapolation or exacerbation of ours than an alternative to it. In its world, as in ours, ultra-authoritarianism and Capital are by no means incompatible: internment camps and franchise coffee bars co-exist.
In Children of Men, public space is abandoned, given over to uncollected garbage and stalking animals (one especially resonant scene takes place inside a derelict school, through which a deer runs). Neoliberals, the capitalist realists par excellence, have celebrated the destruction of public space but, contrary to their official hopes, there is no withering away of the state in Children of Men, only a stripping back of the state to its core military and police functions (I say ‘official’ hopes since neoliberalism surreptitiously relied on the state even while it has ideologically excoriated it. This was made spectacularly clear during the banking crisis of 2008, when, at the invitation of neoliberal ideologues, the state rushed in to shore up the banking system.)
The catastrophe in Children of Men is neither waiting down the road, nor has it already happened. Rather, it is being lived through. There is no punctual moment of disaster; the world doesn’t end with a bang, it winks out, unravels, gradually falls apart. What caused the catastrophe to occur, who knows; its cause lies long in the past, so absolutely detached from the present as to seem like the caprice of a malign being: a negative miracle, a malediction which no penitence can ameliorate. Such a blight can only be eased by an intervention that can no more be anticipated than was the onset of the curse in the first place.
Action is pointless; only senseless hope makes sense.
Superstition and religion, the first resorts of the helpless, proliferate. But what of the catastrophe itself? It is evident that the theme of sterility must be read metaphorically, as the displacement of another kind of anxiety. I want to argue this anxiety cries out to be read in cultural terms, and the question the film poses is: how long can a culture persist without the new? What happens if the young are no longer capable of producing surprises?
Children of Men connects with the suspicion that the end has already come, the thought that it could well be the case that the future harbors only reiteration and re-permutation. Could it be that there are no breaks, no ‘shocks of the new’ to come? Such anxieties tend to result in a bi-polar oscillation: the ‘weak messianic’ hope that there must be something new on the way lapses into the morose conviction that nothing new can ever happen. The focus shifts from the Next Big Thing to the last big thing – how long ago did it happen and just how big was it?
T.S. Eliot looms in the background of Children of Men, which, after all, inherits the theme of sterility from The Waste Land. The film’s closing epigraph ‘shantih shantih shantih’ has more to do with Eliot’s fragmentary pieces than the Upanishads’ peace.
Perhaps it is possible to see the concerns of another Eliot – the Eliot of ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ – ciphered in Children of Men. It was in this essay that Eliot, in anticipation of Harold Bloom, described the reciprocal relationship between the canonical and the new. The new defines itself in response to what is already established; at the same time, the established has to reconfigure itself in response to the new. Eliot’s claim was that the exhaustion of the future does not even leave us with the past.
Tradition counts for nothing when it is no longer contested and modified. A culture that is merely preserved is no culture at all.
The fate of Picasso’s Guernica in the film – once a howl of anguish and outrage against Fascist atrocities, now a wall-hanging – is exemplary. Like its Battersea hanging space in the film, the painting is accorded ‘iconic’ status only when it is deprived of any possible function or context. No cultural object can retain its power when there are no longer new eyes to see it.
We do not need to wait for Children of Men’s near-future to arrive to see this transformation of culture into museum pieces.
The power of capitalist realism derives in part from the way that capitalism subsumes and consumes all of previous history: one effect of its ‘system of equivalence’ which can assign all cultural objects, whether they are religious iconography, pornography, or Das Kapital, a monetary value.
Walk around the British Museum, where you see objects torn from their lifeworlds and assembled as if on the deck of some Predator spacecraft, and you have a powerful image of this process at work. In the conversion of practices and rituals into merely aesthetic objects, the beliefs of previous cultures are objectively ironized, transformed into artifacts. Capitalist realism is therefore not a particular type of realism; it is more like realism in itself.
As Marx and Engels themselves observed in The Communist Manifesto, [Capital] has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.
Capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics.
Yet this turn from belief to aesthetics, from engagement to spectatorship, is held to be one of the virtues of capitalist realism. In claiming, as Badiou puts it, to have ‘delivered us from the “fatal abstractions” inspired by the “ideologies of the past”’, capitalist realism presents itself as a shield protecting us from the perils posed by belief itself. The attitude of ironic distance proper to postmodern capitalism is supposed to immunize us against the seductions of fanaticism. Lowering our expectations, we are told, is a small price to pay for being protected from terror and totalitarianism.
‘We live in a contradiction,’ Badiou has observed: a brutal state of affairs, profoundly inegalitarian – where all existence is evaluated in terms of money alone – is presented to us as ideal. To justify their conservatism, the partisans of the established order cannot really call it ideal or wonderful.
So instead, they have decided to say that all the rest is horrible. Sure, they say, we may not live in a condition of perfect Goodness. But we’re lucky that we don’t live in a condition of Evil. Our democracy is not perfect. But it’s better than the bloody dictatorships. Capitalism is unjust. But it’s not criminal like Stalinism. We let millions of Africans die of AIDS, but we don’t make racist nationalist declarations like Milosevic. We kill Iraqis with our airplanes, but we don’t cut their throats with machetes like they do in Rwanda, etc.
The ‘realism’ here is analogous to the deflationary perspective of a depressive who believes that any positive state, any hope, is a dangerous illusion.
In their account of capitalism, surely the most impressive since Marx’s, Deleuze and Guattari describe capitalism as a kind of dark potentiality which haunted all previous social systems. Capital, they argue, is the ‘unnamable Thing’, the abomination, which primitive and feudal societies ‘warded off in advance’.
When it actually arrives, capitalism brings with it a massive desacralization of culture. It is a system which is no longer governed by any transcendent Law; on the contrary, it dismantles all such codes, only to re-install them on an ad hoc basis. The limits of capitalism are not fixed by fiat, but defined (and redefined) pragmatically and improvisationally. This makes capitalism very much like the Thing in John Carpenter’s film of the same name: a monstrous, infinitely plastic entity, capable of metabolizing and absorbing anything with which it comes into contact.
Capital, Deleuze and Guattari says, is a ‘motley painting of everything that ever was’; a strange hybrid of the ultra-modern and the archaic. In the years since Deleuze and Guattari wrote the two volumes of their Capitalism And Schizophrenia, it has seemed as if the deterritorializing impulses of capitalism have been confined to finance, leaving culture presided over by the forces of reterritorialization.
This malaise, the feeling that there is nothing new, is itself nothing new of course. We find ourselves at the notorious ‘end of history’ trumpeted by Francis Fukuyama after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Fukuyama’s thesis that history has climaxed with liberal capitalism may have been widely derided, but it is accepted, even assumed, at the level of the cultural unconscious.
It should be remembered, though, that even when Fukuyama advanced it, the idea that history had reached a ‘terminal beach’ was not merely triumphalist. Fukuyama warned that his radiant city would be haunted, but he thought its specters would be Nietzschean rather than Marxian. Some of Nietzsche’s most prescient pages are those in which he describes the ‘oversaturation of an age with history’.
‘It leads an age into a dangerous mood of irony in regard to itself’, he wrote in Untimely Meditations, ‘and subsequently into the even more dangerous mood of cynicism’, in which ‘cosmopolitan fingering’, a detached spectatorialism, replaces engagement and involvement. This is the condition of Nietzsche’s Last Man, who has seen everything, but is decadently enfeebled precisely by this excess of (self) awareness.
Fukuyama’s position is in some ways a mirror image of Fredric Jameson’s. Jameson famously claimed that postmodernism is the ‘cultural logic of late capitalism’. He argued that the failure of the future was constitutive of a postmodern cultural scene which, as he correctly prophesied, would become dominated by pastiche and revivalism. Given that Jameson has made a convincing case for the relationship between postmodern culture and certain tendencies in consumer (or post-Fordist) capitalism, it could appear that there is no need for the concept of capitalist realism at all.
In some ways, this is true. What I’m calling capitalist realism can be subsumed under the rubric of postmodernism as theorized by Jameson. Yet, despite Jameson’s heroic work of clarification, postmodernism remains a hugely contested term, its meanings, appropriately but unhelpfully, unsettled and multiple. More importantly, I would want to argue that some of the processes which Jameson described and analyzed have now become so aggravated and chronic that they have gone through a change in kind.
Ultimately, there are three reasons that I prefer the term capitalist realism to postmodernism. In the 1980s, when Jameson first advanced his thesis about postmodernism, there were still, in name at least, political alternatives to capitalism. What we are dealing with now, however, is a deeper, far more pervasive, sense of exhaustion, of cultural and political sterility. In the 80s, ‘Really Existing Socialism’ still persisted, albeit in its final phase of collapse.
In Britain, the fault lines of class antagonism were fully exposed in an event like the Miners’ Strike of 1984-1985, and the defeat of the miners was an important moment in the development of capitalist realism, at least as significant in its symbolic dimension as in its practical effects. The closure of pits was defended precisely on the grounds that keeping them open was not ‘economically realistic’, and the miners were cast in the role of the last actors in a doomed proletarian romance.
The 80s were the period when capitalist realism was fought for and established, when Margaret Thatcher’s doctrine that ‘there is no alternative’ – as succinct a slogan of capitalist realism as you could hope for – became a brutally self-fulfilling prophecy.
Secondly, postmodernism involved some relationship to modernism. Jameson’s work on postmodernism began with an interrogation of the idea, cherished by the likes of Adorno, that modernism possessed revolutionary potentials by virtue of its formal innovations alone. What Jameson saw happening instead was the incorporation of modernist motifs into popular culture (suddenly, for example, Surrealist techniques would appear in advertising).
At the same time as particular modernist forms were absorbed and commodified, modernism’s credos – its supposed belief in elitism and its monological, top-down model of culture – were challenged and rejected in the name of ‘difference’, ‘diversity’ and ‘multiplicity’. Capitalist realism no longer stages this kind of confrontation with modernism. On the contrary, it takes the vanquishing of modernism for granted: modernism is now something that can periodically return, but only as a frozen aesthetic style, never as an ideal for living.
Thirdly, a whole generation has passed since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. In the 1960s and 1970s, capitalism had to face the problem of how to contain and absorb energies from outside. It now, in fact, has the opposite problem; having all-too successfully incorporated externality, how can it function without an outside it can colonize and appropriate?
For most people under twenty in Europe and North America, the lack of alternatives to capitalism is no longer even an issue. Capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable. Jameson used to report in horror about the ways that capitalism had seeped into the very unconscious; now, the fact that capitalism has colonized the dreaming life of the population is so taken for granted that it is no longer worthy of comment.
It would be dangerous and misleading to imagine that the near past was some prelapsarian state rife with political potentials, so it’s as well to remember the role that commodification played in the production of culture throughout the twentieth century.
Yet the old struggle between detournement and recuperation, between subversion and incorporation, seems to have been played out. What we are dealing with now is not the incorporation of materials that previously seemed to possess subversive potentials, but instead, their precorporation: the pre-emptive formatting and shaping of desires, aspirations and hopes by capitalist culture.
Witness, for instance, the establishment of settled ‘alternative’ or ‘independent’ cultural zones, which endlessly repeat older gestures of rebellion and contestation as if for the first time. ‘Alternative’ and ‘independent’ don’t designate something outside mainstream culture; rather, they are styles, in fact the dominant styles, within the mainstream.
No-one embodied (and struggled with) this deadlock more than Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. In his dreadful lassitude and objectless rage, Cobain seemed to give wearied voice to the despondency of the generation that had come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened.
Cobain knew that he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance, knew that even realizing it is a cliché. The impasse that paralyzed Cobain is precisely the one that Jameson described: like postmodern culture in general, Cobain found himself in ‘a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, [where] all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum’.
Here, even success meant failure, since to succeed would only mean that you were the new meat on which the system could feed. But the high existential angst of Nirvana and Cobain belongs to an older moment; what succeeded them was a pastiche-rock which reproduced the forms of the past without anxiety.
Cobain’s death confirmed the defeat and incorporation of rock’s utopian and promethean ambitions. When he died, rock was already being eclipsed by hip hop, whose global success has presupposed just the kind of precorporation by capital which I alluded to above. For much hip hop, any ‘naïve’ hope that youth culture could change anything has been replaced by the hardheaded embracing of a brutally reductive version of ‘reality’.
‘In hip hop’, Simon Reynolds pointed out in a 1996 essay in The Wire magazine, ‘real’ has two meanings. First, it means authentic, uncompromised music that refuses to sell out to the music industry and soften its message for crossover. ‘Real’ also signifies that the music reflects a ‘reality’ constituted by late capitalist economic instability, institutionalized racism, and increased surveillance and harassment of youth by the police.
‘Real’ means the death of the social: it means corporations who respond to increased profits not by raising pay or improving benefits but by …. downsizing (the laying-off the permanent workforce in order to create a floating employment pool of part-time and freelance workers without benefits or job security).
In the end, it was precisely hip hop’s performance of this first version of the real – ‘the uncompromising’ – that enabled its easy absorption into the second, the reality of late capitalist economic instability, where such authenticity has proven highly marketable. Gangster rap neither merely reflects pre-existing social conditions, as many of its advocates claim, nor does it simply cause those conditions, as its critics argue – rather the circuit whereby hip hop and the late capitalist social field feed into each other is one of the means by which capitalist realism transforms itself into a kind of anti-mythical myth.
The affinity between hip hop and gangster movies such as Scarface, The Godfather films, Reservoir Dogs, Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction arises from their common claim to have stripped the world of sentimental illusions and seen it for ‘what it really is’: a Hobbesian war of all against all, a system of perpetual exploitation and generalized criminality.
In hip hop, Reynolds writes, ‘To “get real” is to confront a state-of-nature where dog eats dog, where you’re either a winner or a loser, and where most will be losers’.
The same neo-noir worldview can be found in the comic books of Frank Miller and in the novels of James Ellroy. There is a kind of machismo of demythologization in Miller and Ellroy’s works.
They pose as unflinching observers who refuse to prettify the world so that it can be fitted into the supposedly simple ethical binaries of the superhero comic and the traditional crime novel.
The ‘realism’ here is somehow underscored, rather than undercut, by their fixation on the luridly venal – even though the hyperbolic insistence on cruelty, betrayal and savagery in both writers quickly becomes pantomimic. ‘In his pitch blackness’, Mike Davis wrote of Ellroy in 1992, ‘there is no light left to cast shadows and evil becomes a forensic banality. The result feels very much like the actual moral texture of the Reagan-Bush era: a supersaturation of corruption that fails any longer to outrage or even interest’.
Yet this very desensitization serves a function for capitalist realism: Davis hypothesized that ‘the role of L.A. noir’ may have been ‘to endorse the emergence of homo reaganus’.