Capitalist realism, to sum it up briefly, can be seen as both a belief and an attitude. It is a belief that capitalism is the only viable political or economic system, and a simple restatement of the old Thatcherite maxim, ‘There is no alternative’.
It was never really necessarily about the idea that capitalism was a particularly good system: it was more about persuading people that it is the only viable system and the building of an alternative is impossible. That discontent is practically universal does not change the fact that there appears to be no workable alternative to capitalism. It does not change the belief that capitalism still holds all cards and that there is nothing we can do about it.
The decline of the unions is probably the biggest factor in the rise of capitalist realism for ordinary people. Now we find ourselves in a situation where everybody disdains bankers and finance capitalism, and the level of control that these people still hold over all of our lives. Everyone is aghast at the plunder, avoidance of tax and so forth, yet at the same time there is this sentiment that we can do nothing about it. And why has that sentiment grown so powerful? It is because there really is no agent to mediate the feelings people have and organise those people. The effect is that discontent can be widespread, but without such an agent it will remain at the level of individual disaffection.
That easily converts into depression as well, which is one of the stories I try and tell in my book, Capitalist Realism. I deal with the association between post-politics, post-ideology, the rise of neoliberalism, and the conjoined rise of depression, particularly among young people. I call this process the ‘privatisation of stress’.
I do not want to hang everything on trade union decline — unions are just an example of what has been removed from the psychic and political infrastructure of people’s lives over the last thirty or forty years. However, in the past, if your pay and conditions got worse, you might go to the unions and organise, whereas now we are encouraged, if, for example, stress at work increases, to see it as our own problem and deal with it as an individual.
We must deal with it through self-medication, through antidepressants, which are increasingly widely prescribed, or, if we are lucky, through therapy. But these concerns — experienced now as individual psychic pathologies — do not really have their roots in brain chemistry: they reside in the wider social field. But, because there is no longer an agent, a mediator, for a class acting collectively, there is no way of tackling that wider social field.
Another way of getting to this story is via the restructuring of capital in the late seventies and early eighties, the arrival of post-Fordism. That meant the increasing use of precarious conditions at work, just-in-time production, the dreaded word ‘flexibility’: we must bend to capital, no matter what capital wants; we are required to bend to it and we will bend to it. On the one hand, there was that kind of stick, but there was also at least the appearance of carrots in the eighties: neoliberalism did not just hammer workers; it encouraged people no longer to identify as workers. Its success was in being able to seduce people out of that identification, and out of class consciousness.
The genius at the centre of Thatcherism could be found in the selling-off of council houses, because alongside the straightforward inducement of owning your own home was the narrative about time and history, whereby Thatcher and people like her were out to make your life more free. They were opposed to those stuck-in-the-mud, centralising bureaucrats, who want to control your life for you. That involved a very successful harnessing of the desires that had grown up, particularly since the sixties.
Part of the problem here was the absence of a left response to post-Fordism — instead there was an attachment to the comfort of old antagonisms, you could say. We had internalised the story that there was a strong workers’ movement which depended on unity. What were the conditions for that? Well, we had Fordist labour, the concentration of workers in confined spaces, the domination of the industrial workforce by male workers, etc. The breakdown of those conditions threatened the breakdown of the workers’ movement. There was the emergence of a plurality of other struggles, leading to the undermining of the common purpose that the workers’ movement once possessed. But that kind of nostalgia for Fordism was actually dangerous — the failure was not that Fordism ended, but that we had no alternative vision of modernity to compete with the neoliberal account.
Alongside the labour struggles of the eighties there were also cultural struggles. Both were defeated, but at the time it was by no means obvious that they would be. If you remember, the eighties were the time when there were moral panics about ‘loony left’ councils, and there was also a moral panic over Channel 4 with its politically correct lefties, who were supposedly taking over broadcasting.
That is part of what I mean by an alternative modernity — an alternative to the neoliberal ‘modernity’, which is actually just a return to the nineteenth century in many ways. The widespread idea that the mainstream culture is inherently co-opted, and all we can do is withdraw from it, is deeply flawed. The same is true about parliamentary politics. You should not pin all of your hopes on parliamentary politics, but, at the same time, if it was pointless then you have to ask why the business class expends so many resources in subjugating parliament to its own interests.
It is not that parliamentary politics will achieve much on its own — the object lesson of what happens if you believe that to be the case was New Labour. Power without hegemony — that is effectively what New Labour was. You cannot hope to achieve anything through an electoral machine alone. But it is hard to see how struggles can succeed without being part of an ensemble. We have to win back the idea that it is about winning the hegemonic struggle in society on different fronts at the same time.
There is far too much toleration of failure on our side. If I ever have to hear that Samuel Beckett quote, ‘Try again, fail again, fail better’, I will go mad. Why do we even think in these terms? There is no honour in failure, although there is no shame in it if you have tried to succeed. Instead of that stupid slogan we should aim to learn from our mistakes in order to succeed next time. The odds might be stacked in such a way that we do keep losing, but the point is to increase our collective intelligence. That requires, if not a party structure of the old type, then at least some kind of system of coordination and some system of memory. Capital has this, and we need it too to be able to fight back.