“Dear Mark,” began an email I wrote to a man I had never met in the first days of 2010:
I read your book Capitalist Realism last week and it felt like coming up for air after a long time spent underwater. I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving such eloquent expression to pretty much everything that needed to be said, and for providing a reason to hope, when I for one was just about ready to despair.
To those unacquainted with the work of theorist, music writer, journalist, film critic, philosopher, editor, and lecturer Mark Fisher, who sadly took his own life four years ago today, the above might seem hyperbolic or sycophantic. It is neither. Like so many other members of my generation, encountering Capitalist Realism at the age of twenty-five transformed my life.
During a tricky period — I had recently suffered a head-on collision with the British music industry — Mark’s writing really did give me a reason to hope. Through his eloquence, his lucidity, but more than that, his ability to get to the heart of what was wrong with late-capitalist culture and right about the putative alternative, he seemed to have cracked some ineffable code. Capitalist Realism made a series of simple points that bypassed years of postmodern hedging to offer a foundation for action; it was a spiritual call to arms, diagnosing the neoliberal problem and reimagining the socialist solution with the force of revelation.
This description runs the risk of casting Mark in the dubious role of countercultural martyr — an archetype he himself returned to repeatedly in his writing, notably the examples of Kurt Cobain and Ian Curtis. But Mark’s literary output, Capitalist Realism in particular, always had an aspect of prophecy or at least uncanny prescience. He seemed to have grasped certain truths about the twenty-first century long before anyone else, so much so that, in the wake of last week’s tragedy, people are interpreting posts written under his k-punk alias in the early 2000s as timely commentaries on our present malaise.
Perhaps my sense of Capitalist Realism as a sudden epiphany comes from the fact that I only got to know Mark in his later years, when we worked together at Zero Books and then at Repeater, a period in which he acquired a degree of belated acclaim.
At both publishers, the staff tacitly understood that Mark was the soulful heart of the project, even when he was off the radar for long periods. By some distance, Mark was our best-selling author: a cult hero who gradually attracted the attention of politicians and celebrities from Slavoj Žižek and Laurie Anderson to John McDonnell and Russell Brand.
But he was also nine-tenths of our identity, even as he became increasingly silent over the last year or so. When we left Zero to form Repeater after a long-brewing dispute with our parent company, we knew that whatever the legality of the situation, Mark was Zero, and hence was Repeater, and that ultimately only he had moral ownership of either imprint.
For those who got to know Mark before I did, his rise to intellectual centrality over the last decade appeared as the inevitable outcome of a long and rich trajectory, one that combined the ordinary and the unheimlich.
He was born in 1968 in the East Midlands, an area that sits on an ambiguous fault line between Northern and Southern England. The region has a strong industrial heritage and forged the Luddite risings of the 1810s, yet sits close to the traditional pastoral terrain of southern English writers like Thomas Hardy and M. R. James. Mark regularly alluded to the aftereffects of his origins in this working-class edgeland: in his seminal blog posts on The Fall in 2006-7 and, more controversially, in his 2013 polemic “Exiting the Vampire Castle.” Indeed, Mark wrote about class with more subtlety and vehemence than any other contemporary critic.
But you got the feeling that he was leaving some things unsaid. I always suspected that Mark was building up to some great work on English class identity in the seventies and eighties. In the last couple of years of his life, he was writing about football culture, and I think this subject was the heart of the matter for him.
A little discussed — because little known — fact is that Mark attended Hillsborough Stadium on April 15, 1989, when ninety-six Liverpool fans were crushed to death thanks to police incompetence and manhandling. Wary of overstating his personal involvement — Mark was a Nottingham Forest supporter, so remained at some distance from the stand in which the deaths took place — he rarely talked about Hillsborough. But the tragedy and its subsequent cover-up profoundly impacted his political mindset.
For Mark, the collective traumas of the English proletariat in the seventies and eighties represented crucial — and always painfully immediate — lived experiences. A long section of his 2014 anthology Ghosts of My Life covers seventies British pop culture, and his intellectual project was largely organised around what he termed “pulp modernism” (latterly amended to “popular modernism”).
This project far exceeded garden-variety cultural studies. Mark never gave in to nostalgia for the postwar years (as his melancholic riffs on Joy Division and Jimmy Savile in Ghosts underline), but he did believe that the social-democratic counterculture circa 1965–1997 represented the true culmination of twentieth-century modernism. As such, it signified the zenith of human aesthetic development and studying it became a source of immense radical potential. As Owen Hatherley reminds us, Mark’s foregrounding of pop culture didn’t participate in the ironic postmodern reversals so prevalent at the end of the last century. Mark believed in mass culture’s power with every facet of his intellectual being, and this is one of many things that set him apart from his philosophical predecessors and coevals, Žižek and Jameson especially.
In the 1990s, Mark caught the tail end of actually existing popular modernism, as he immersed himself in an intellectual scene that pushed post-structuralism to its natural limit. While writing his PhD at Warwick University, he became involved with Nick Land’s Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (Ccru), an early and sometimes wayward manifestation of the “accelerationist” tendency that has recently been revived under more pragmatic auspices.
With high theory acting as an umbrella, the Ccru cohort grabbed hold of the zeitgeist — drum and bass, cyberpunk, pulp fiction, early internet culture — and ran with it. Here, many of Mark’s key intellectual motifs were synthesised. He even dabbled in music production, first as a member of the jungle collective D-Generation and later as architect of death garage track “Anticlimax (Inhumans Moreerotic Female Orgasm Analog Mix),” the title of which offers a glimpse of Mark’s often undisclosed playful side.
The Ccru period was a time of heady activity, but Mark only really came into his own as a critic after 2000. As the cornerstone of a blogging community that eventually included music journalist Simon Reynolds, philosopher Nina Power, and architecture critic Owen Hatherley, among others, “Mark k-punk” helped develop and popularise a new intellectual sensibility centred around an important recalibration of the concept of “hauntology.”
The term originated as a half-pun in Derrida’s 1994 Spectres of Marx, but Mark used it as a means of foregrounding popular modernism. His k-punk blog posts typically veered between savage dissections of the moribund music scene of the mid-2000s and extensive discussions of how postwar socialist and social-democratic pop culture continued to haunt the present, a time when anticapitalist political alternatives had all but evaporated.
The hauntology concept Mark helped disseminate began as a largely aesthetic category during a period of political stagnation. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, however, it hardened into something more programmatic. With his close friend, novelist Tariq Goddard, he corralled the best of the 2000s blogging scene and founded Zero Books, which became a kind of nursery for the ideas underpinning the revived activism that spread across the United Kingdom — and indeed the world — as the 2000s morphed into the 2010s.
Owen Hatherley’s Militant Modernism, Nina Power’s One-Dimensional Woman, and Ivor Southwood’s Non-Stop Inertia were early standouts. But it was Capitalist Realism that was in the back pocket of countless demonstrators at the 2010 student protests, and which became the unofficial manifesto for the leftist resurgence of 2011 — the so-called year of dreaming dangerously.
Perhaps we should look more skeptically, from the slightly bleaker vantage point of 2017, at this emphasis on “dreaming,” on that period’s vague promises about another, newly possible, world. To be sure, Capitalist Realism does not offer much in the way of doctrinaire pronouncements, largely refusing to address how capitalism can actually be defeated. The revolution it encouraged in readers was far subtler and, with hindsight, more appropriate for a movement that was, and arguably still is, in the early stages of revival. The first step in the fight against the entrenched desocialisation and dysphoria of the twenty-first century, the book argues, must be a simple freeing of consciousness.
This initially sounds like a throwback to the failed leftism of the sixties and seventies, and indeed Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus is one of the models for Capitalist Realism. Mark set his argument apart, however, by making contemporary subjectivism the primary site of struggle and ultimately a means of reactivating collectivity. His writings on mental health enacted a series of brilliant inversions.
You think you feel bad because of some arbitrary affliction called depression, but might your working conditions have something to do with it? We have been told that neoliberal capitalism liberated us from the horrors of statist dystopias, so why have mental-health problems skyrocketed in recent years? What if we looked beyond our obsession with self for a minute and re-emphasised our sociality? What if you held a protest and everyone came? These were the lyrical, elemental questions Capitalist Realism posed, and they highlight why reading it was such an emotional and transformative experience for so many people.
Perhaps because Mark’s personality and philosophical arguments depended on a kind of radical selflessness, his working life was harder than it should have been, despite his considerable intellectual prowess and achievements. Shockingly, he only acquired a permanent academic post in the last few years, and on either side of this he served as the laureate of precarity as it became a meaningful critical concept.
He regularly bemoaned the sheer volume of bureaucracy that academic work demanded, and he was victim to the call-out culture that has paralysed left-wing discourse over the last couple of years. He left Twitter in the wake of the controversy provoked by “Exiting the Vampire Castle,” after being bombarded with ridiculous accusations of misogyny and chauvinism. However, while Mark’s great détournement was to reinstate a sociopolitical framework for understanding mental illness, it is evident from the available facts that while social pressures exacerbated his depression, they were not its sole cause.
In our reflection on Mark’s legacy, we should pay close attention to his insistence in “Exiting the Vampire Castle” that we must always operate “in an atmosphere of comradeship and solidarity.” After the organised left’s nadir during the Bush-Blair years, Mark’s work represented, more than anyone else’s, a much-needed leap of faith away from capitalist individualism and into communitarian praxis. At its heart, it called for rock-solid team spirit. Mark practiced this creed in his life and work, and we can pay him some small tribute by following his example.