How to blow up the capitalist realism of fossil capital

  • March 13, 2022

Climate & Catastrophe

Capitalist realist tropes in Andreas Malm’s environmental critique can complement Mark Fisher’s surprisingly scarce engagement with the climate crisis.

There is this didactic little parable by the late David Foster Wallace: an old fish, meeting two youngsters swimming by, nudges them: “Good morning boys, how is the water?” After a short while, as they swim away, one of the younger fish looks at the other and says: “What the hell is water?”

Although it is possible to read this as a parable of youthful inexperience and ignorance, an alternative reading presents itself: one that illuminates the difficulty of seeing the implicit assumptions that structure our everyday experiences and, as such, the contingencies of our world. Their all-pervasive invisibility not only makes them hard to grasp, but often conceals the fact that they exist in the first place. The parable, then, could be read as a commentary on ideology.

Anthropogenic global warming and the ensuing climate change have just recently been declared an “unequivocal” fact by the otherwise equally unequivocal, cautious and reserved scholars of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Not that we really needed confirmation: the list of extreme weather events — a far more tangible testimony to the fact — seems without end.

Not so long ago, the UN’s Emissions Gap Report 2021 stated we are on a steady course for a 2.7 degrees Celsius increase by the year 2100, while The Guardian crowned 2021 with the publication of a gloomy review of “devastating weather and alarming discoveries.” Somewhere between the lines we can discern the voice of the late Mark Fisher: “The catastrophe is neither waiting down the road, nor has it already happened. Rather, it is being lived through.”

What makes Foster Wallace’s parable pertinent to us, living in the here and now of anthropogenic global warming, is that we can pin the climate disaster on a very particular culprit: capitalism. This conviction, shared by an extremely diverse, yet, on that point, unanimous strand of scholarship — we could call it environmentally concerned Marxian thought — alone is not enough, however. Philosopher and political scientist Nancy Fraser captured it well in a 2014 essay for the New Left Review: “We are living through a capitalist crisis of great severity without a critical theory that could adequately clarify it,” while also lacking “conceptions of capitalism and capitalist crisis that are adequate to our time.”

Such conceptions, taking seriously the challenge of our current crisis, can be found in the corpus of two thinkers from two different corners of the left: philosopher and cultural critic Mark Fisher, famous for coining the concept of capitalist realism, and climate activist and human ecologist Andreas Malm, perhaps best known for his notion of fossil capital. There is much to be gained in the field of emancipatory environmental politics by reading them in tandem — least of all, the tools which could clarify the often muddy ideological waters of our current predicament.

Both Malm and Fisher take Fraser’s plea to provide an adequate analysis for our times to heart, each working out a different-yet-converging critique of the contemporary crisis. And to both applies what cultural critic Macon Holt observed of Fisher, namely a conviction that “the current hegemonic arrangement of neoliberal capitalism is insufficient to the realization of human emancipation.”

We can read Fisher as articulating in more detail — through the notion of capitalist realism — certain elements of Malm’s relentless environmental critique, of a historical moment when “capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable.” And we can read Malm as complementing Fisher’s surprisingly scarce engagement with the environmental and climate aspects of the current crisis. Fisher does recognize “the urgency of dealing with environmental disaster,” but does so in passing and leaves it largely undiscussed. As such, climate disaster and anthropogenic global warming are conspicuous in their absence.

Fisher builds his notion of capitalist realism on the shoulders of Marxist literary critic Frederic Jameson and his remark that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” Malm, too, keeps returning to this line in his respective works. For this present investigation, Jameson’s line provides a suitable point of departure into Fisher’s and Malm’s thought.

What follows is an attempt to sketch a map of what I take to be the key intersecting points between the two scholars, bringing to the fore the many implicit capitalist realist moments of Malm’s ecological critique and arguing that this critique, in turn, can extrapolate and strengthen Fisher’s analysis of capitalist realism.

The unimaginable end of capitalism

As we try to grasp the meaning of a world 2.7 degrees Celsius warmer than its pre-industrial level, Jameson’s comment takes on a new, more urgent meaning. For all we know, this would literally mean the end of the world as we know it. And yet, imagining the end of capitalism — the main systemic driver of global warming — for the majority of us still seems impossible.

For Fisher, Jameson’s quote “captures precisely” the idea of 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.” If Jameson’s catchphrase became almost a staple on the left, it is because it succinctly captures a cluster of prominent themes in anti-capitalist critique — chief among them being the notion of naturalization, an ideological mechanism that distorts the contingent into appearing necessary, turning history into nature.

Consulting political theorist and historian Ellen Meiksins Wood’s account of the origin of capitalism can help illuminate the point. In this classic work, she discusses how the dominant, pro-market discourses accounting for the emergence of capitalism are premised on its naturalization as a universal teleology — as a transhistorical and inevitable tendency inherent in human nature. Ultimately, she traces these variations on what she calls “the commercialization model” back to the original formulation of Adam Smith’s free market theory.

In fact, one could be tempted to read the very opening of her book as a definition of capitalist realism avant la lettre: “the ‘collapse of Communism’ in the late 1980s and 1990s seemed to confirm what many people have longed believed: that capitalism is the natural condition of humanity, that it conforms to the laws of nature and basic human inclinations, and that any deviation from those laws and inclinations can only come to grief.”

Jameson’s epigram also finds its way into (at least) three of Malm’s works: his account of fossil capital under the same name, his polemical piece on climate theory The Progress of This Storm and his most recent anti-pacifist work on environmental activism How to Blow Up a Pipeline. Furthermore, upon closer inspection, it appears that a critique of what Fisher conceptualizes as capitalist realism is a fairly prominent if not explicit feature of Malm’s thinking. Throughout his work, he is concerned with the critique of “mistaking capitalists for humans” — in other words, with the tendency to naturalize certain traits of capitalism as defining for humans.

Before we try to understand the latent presence of capitalist realism in Malm’s thought, however, let us first examine the notion of capitalist realism itself.

Capitalist Realism: A diagnosis of impotency

Capitalist realism can be understood through the lenses of its respective parts — capitalism and realism. Although it can be defined in a number of ways, capitalism in the Marxist tradition is usually defined as a specific form of property relations that is characterized by the following traits: the means of production are privately owned; the purpose of production is profit; commodities produced are sold on the market; and, work is organized through wage labor.

If, against this background, we look at the definitions of capitalism Fisher operates with, we quickly get the sense that his project is a rather unorthodox one. He explains that capitalism “is 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 say, is a ‘motley painting of everything that ever was.’’’

Perhaps one way to put it is to say that instead of focusing on the “what?” of capitalism, Fisher prefers to address its “how?” The analysis of capitalist realism is not one of the system of property relations as such, but rather of the specific cultural and socio-political consequences a particular historical expression of capitalism engenders.

What Fisher seems to be emphasizing through his idiosyncratic choice of capitalism’s definitions is the ostensible finality that capitalism wishes to cloak itself with. Here is where we touch on the second constitutive part of his idea, the realism. Capitalist realism is a historical phenomenon that takes Fukuyama, Reagan and Thatcher as its departure points. “The End of History” as much as “There is no Alternative” of the neoliberal moment are, tellingly, not so much propositions as declarations.

Needless to say, the current climate crisis shows only too well how premature such proclamations were. And yet — and that is the central point Fisher seems to be making — as long as one operates within the capitalist realism paradigm, the links between different facets of the crisis remain obscure, and when they become explicit, they are not acted upon. Capitalist realism is a diagnosis of this impotency: Fisher likens it to “a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.” We will rediscover many of these concerns in Malm.

There is yet another sense in which a more formal definition of capitalism is of less urgency for Fisher. This approach echoes, consciously or not, the secondary importance defining capitalism has for the very workings of capitalist realism and its ideology itself: “The role of capitalist ideology is not to make an explicit case for something in the way that propaganda does. […] It is impossible to conceive of fascism or Stalinism without propaganda — but capitalism can proceed perfectly well, in some ways better, without anyone making a case for it.” Not that such a case could not be made: one way Fisher characterizes it is as “a ‘business ontology’ in which it is simply obvious that everything in society, including healthcare and education, should be run as a business.”

The point is rather that under capitalist realism, no one needs to recite from capitalism’s Little Red Book. Capitalist realism colonizes the way we think about the world precisely by disguising the very notion of capitalism — the less conspicuous, the better. So, capitalism does not work as something explicit, but rather precisely as something undefined. Or to put it differently, overcoming it depends as much on exposing it as the thing at work (showing that it is at work at all) as on grasping the precise way it works (showing how it works). Those two moments, though related, are not identical. The clue seems to be that we are not aware of its existence — it is, we remember, the water we obviously swim in.

However — and this is one of Fisher’s most valuable contributions to theorizing emancipatory politics — the workings of the ideological predicament we find ourselves in cut deeper than that: capitalist realism, according to Fisher, embraces a type of anti-capitalism as well. In other words, simply attaining consciousness is not enough — although that itself is not easy given the mechanisms built into capitalism designed for its prevention. It is precisely this point that is of particular interest from the perspective of the climate struggle: problematizing not only indifference — an all too easy move — but also certain forms of intellectual engagement.

Drawing on Žižek, Fisher observes that capitalist ideology “consists precisely in the overvaluing of belief — in the sense of inner subjective attitude — at the expense of the beliefs we exhibit and externalize in our behavior. So long as we believe (in our hearts) that capitalism is bad, we are free to continue to participate in capitalist exchange.” Fisher shares Žižek’s conviction that this mechanism of disavowal is a structure on which capitalism heavily depends. This point is as simple as it is striking — and one we shall encounter again in Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline.

Malm’s environmental critique

Let us, however, begin with Malm’s Fossil Capital. Here, his take on Jameson’s quote goes like this: “Most debates in the field take it [capitalism] as a given, less open to question than the air we breathe. It has become ‘the elephant in the room,’ in confirmation of Fredric Jameson’s epigram: ‘It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.’”

That Malm quotes Jameson does not in itself point towards capitalist realism, but the passage continues: “It is no longer easy even to imagine capitalism as an object of historical inquiry precisely because it is perceived as a condition of life, more timeless than the very ecological foundations of existence, which, frail and tottering, seem to give way at any moment.” Not only could this serve as an excellent definition of capitalist realism, but it also links it directly to the ecological dimension that is largely absent from Fisher.

Here, in a reason-defying mental construction, capitalism becomes “more timeless” than the very “conditions of ecological existence.” Compare this to Meiksins Wood. Although, as she points out, we know that capitalism “has existed for a very short time, barely a fraction of humanity’s existence on earth,” we still tend to see it precisely as an ahistorical entity — if we see it at all. This is a point where Malm and Fisher converge — although it is a convergence on a point of plain absurdity. This becomes an argument for the untenability of the capitalist realism narrative, in line with Fisher’s proposed emancipatory tactics: “Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ turns out to be nothing of the sort.” This is where Malm’s particular environmental critique serves as a powerful supplement to Fisher’s argument.

A further point worth noting here is that, for Meiksins Wood, the naturalizing tendency she describes derives from the idea that capitalism is the logical conclusion to the development of certain tendencies inherent in “human nature” — of an assumption that capitalism “had existed, at least in embryo, from the dawn of history, if not in the very core of human nature human rationality.” What happens here is that we are mistaking capitalists for humans, homo sapiens for homo economicus, or as Fisher — drawing on Alenka Zupančič — would have it: the Real for “reality.” The ways of conceptualizing this ideological operation are many.

Let us visit one last element of Malm’s thought, perhaps the most telling in favor of the thesis that capitalist realism concerns are not only peripherally present, but indeed, lie at the core concern of his work: “Even if the analysis sketched here is broadly correct, it would still leave one — perhaps the — paramount question unresolved: why don’t people rebel? Why is it that fossil capital persists, if not unchallenged then safely ensconced in the driver’s seat?” In this conundrum, we eventually come to the theme largely conspicuous in this analysis so far: the notion of ideology. For Malm, ideology is “a structure so deeply ingrained in the very materiality of bourgeois society as to be invisible, inaudible, crushingly efficient because it is unstated and taken for granted.”

The parallels with Fisher are clear. In “Lecture Three: From Class Consciousness to Group Consciousness” published posthumously as a part of Post-Capitalist Desire, Fisher argues that: “The very purpose of ideology is to close off the possibility that anything could be different. […] The second step of ideology is to make itself disappear. Ideology doesn’t arrive and say, ‘I am ideology’. Ideology says: ‘I am nature, and this is how things are’. It probably doesn’t speak, but even in my metaphor it doesn’t really have to say anything. It’s we who must think in response to it. This is how things are. They can’t be any different.”

I can see a temptation to argue that the notion of capitalist realism is superfluous and could be substituted simply by the notion of ideology, an objection Fisher seems to hint at when discussing postmodernism early on in Capitalist Realism. Writing the notion of capitalist idealism off on such grounds, however, would be mistaken. For one, capitalist realism is a particular form of ideology — it is historically specific. Capitalist realism builds on ideology structure, cloaking it with the particular expressions it takes in its neoliberal form. The impotence of imagination, the disavowal, the apolitical standstill of the impossibility of anything new: although ultimately they can be traced back to the notion of ideology, they remain first and foremost characteristics of a historically specific ideological regime — which is why capitalist realism is not simply reducible to, or substitutable for ideology as such.

Second, if we agree with Althusser that “man [sic] is an ideological animal by nature,” then it follows that ideology in the strongest sense is something that ultimately cannot be transcended — we can only change the specific form it adopts. So, while we cannot hope for a post-ideological world, a post-capitalist one is surely conceivable. In this sense, critique of ideology is a necessary — yet insufficient — condition of any emancipatory project, which is why Fisher, though silent on environmental issues, is an important ally in the fight for them.

The defeatism of capitalist realism

If the critique in Fossil Capital is of a broader more systemic nature, How to Blow Up A Pipeline takes on a more personal character. Throughout the book, Malm develops a historical and critical analysis and a positive exposition of sabotage as a valid form of non-pacifism and perhaps inevitable feature environmentalist tactics. The most relevant chapter for the present discussion, however, is the concluding one, tellingly named “Fighting Despair.” In this section, Malm addresses the position transcending all such concerns as it shifts into the realm of resignation. And looming underneath the voices of the proponents of resigned acceptance is, again, capitalist realism itself.

One of the most important distinctions piercing Malm’s thinking in this text is the one between those who believe that our collective action can still avert the climate catastrophe and those who see it as mere “naivety” and “wishful thinking.” His focus turns to the American writers Roy Scranton, author of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, and Jonathan Franzen, author of The End of The World and The New Yorker piece “What if we stopped pretending?” Malm makes them his targets, seeing their texts as symptomatic of climate fatalism he so strongly opposes.

Reading Malms’s critique, there is a strong feeling that Scranton and Franzen are not particularly important for him in their own right — they seem to have little to say about climate disaster that would be especially original or intellectually stimulating. Rather, they become representatives of the sentiment of doubt and resignation, explicitly or not, clouding much of the contemporary collective psyche. In that sense, the more mundane they are, the better. Their message is pretty clear: “planetary overheating is a done deal.”

“Done deal.” In resigned proclamations like these, there rings a sense of the lack of alternatives that, as we have seen, is a key characteristic of capitalist realism. Scranton rejects any action, a sentiment that is profoundly anti-political. The resignation, however, becomes additionally cloaked in a form of very particular cynicism, as both Scranton and Franzen practically brag about their environmentally poor habits. There is hardly a better illustration of a specific “mood of irony in regard to itself,” as Nietzsche termed it — and which was picked up by Fisher in his Capitalist Realism — which subsequently leads “into the even more dangerous mood of cynicism,’ in which ‘cosmopolitan fingering’, a detached spectatorialism, replaces engagement and involvement.”

This odd discrepancy between the awareness of a problem and the lack of any meaningful action is, as we have seen, a symptom of capitalist realism par excellence. In his essay “Gothic Oedipus, Fisher says of disavowal that it is “the conviction that what ‘really matters’ is what we are, rather than what we do, and that ‘what we are’ is defined by an ‘inner essence.’ In terms of contemporary American culture, this plays out in the ‘therapeutic’ idea that we can remain a ‘good person’ regardless of what we do.” On Fisher’s reading, disavowal — which could otherwise be understood as a purely personal idiosyncrasy — becomes elevated to the status of a general tendency that is ideological at its core.

In other words — and in this he confirms Malm’s reading of the Scranton-Franzen persona as an ideal type — such narratives are particularly expressive of the paradoxical conditions of life under late capitalism: “The disavowal of beliefs allows us to perform the actions.” It is just not the actions that could undo the dysfunctional system or situation. As such, this specific form of nihilism becomes symptomatic of a more general condition that we are trying to trace and criticize here.

Malm’s discussion culminates in considerations that demonstrate the mechanisms of intellectual inability that structurally characterize the capitalist realist impasse. Some of his passages read like a lost chapter on climate disaster from Capitalist Realism:

“Scranton at one point acknowledges that it [cutting emissions to zero] could be accomplished, if we managed to ‘radically reorient all human economic and social production, a task that is scarcely imaginable, much less feasible.’ […] Despair about the climate is here based on a judgment of extreme improbability, hypostatised into impossibility. The procedure is anti-political through and through.”

Central here are the concepts of imagination, improbability and impossibility — it is the blockage of the first one that translates the second into the third. The blockage itself is the result, it seems, of a certain form of realism that delineates the sphere of the possibilities that one is ready to take into account. The political consequences of this impotence are what make such a stance acutely relevant for the questions of emancipatory politics. The defeatism of capitalist realism embodied in the ideal types of Scranton and Franzen comes full circle with Malm concluding that:

Imagination is a pivotal faculty here. The climate crisis unfolds through a series of interlocked absurdities ingrained in it: not only is it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism or the deliberate, large-scale intervention in the climate system — what we refer to as geoengineering — than in the economic system; it is also easier, at least for some, to imagine learning to die than learning to fight, to reconcile oneself to the end of everything one holds dear than to consider some militant resistance. […] It is easier to imagine the end of the world than me skipping a filet mignon.

Attaining the impossible

Where can we go from here? How does reading Malm and Fisher in tandem help us to overcome the impasse of capitalist realist tedium? A tedium that in no small part perpetuates the current catastrophe, pushing our reality ever more into line with Jameson’s remark.

Fisher’s concept of capitalist realism is an important tool that can enhance the theoretical repertoire of environmentally concerned Marxian thought. Through it, we can engage with the notions of naturalization, lacking imagination, ideology and disavowal, helping us to see them not as unintended contingencies but rather as interconnected structural blocks of an oppressive edifice. Refracted by Malm’s environmental work, these themes become infused with the meaning they seem to call for in our warming world — allowing them to reveal a potential of Fisher’s thought that goes beyond his usual cultural criticism.

There is one more reason to read Fisher and Malm today. I feel that whatever the particular form it takes, their thought is always a much needed reminder that, as Fisher put it, “emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable as a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable.” This, it seems to me, is their water, and it is worth taking a dip into.

Franek Korbański

Franek Korbański lives in Copenhagen, where since 2016 he has been a part of an independent, volunteer run bookstore ark books. He is also a co-founder of the literature discussion platform Book Club Adriatic. He studies Human Ecology at Lund University.

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