Mark Fisher’s Suicide

Mark Fisher died earlier this year. I didn’t even know about it. He wasn’t much older than me. But similarly he suffered from severe depression, having struggled with it for a long time. That is what finally got him, by way of suicide. He was an interesting writer and no doubt his depression gave an edge to his way of thinking and communicating.

His book on capitalist realism was insightful and brought difficult ideas down to ground level. He had a talent for explanation, connecting the unfamiliar to the familiar. His descriptions of capitalism in some ways fits in with Corey Robin’s theory of the reactionary mind, but with his own twist. Here is Fisher from Capitalist Realism:

“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 re-defined) 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.”

I always appreciate writers who can connect intellectual ideas to pop culture examples. It’s one thing to call something reactionary but it’s a whole other thing to offer a clear image of what that means. That which is reactionary is also dynamically creative in that it can take in anything — not just co-opt but absorb, assimilate, and transform anything and everything it touches (or that touches it). Portraying capitalism as the Thing makes it more real within the imagination.

I just bought his latest book that also just came out this year in the US. I’ll have to prioritize reading it before all else.

In Memoriam: Mark Fisher
by Dan Hassler-Forest, Ellie Mae O’Hagan, Mark Bould, Roger Luckhurst, Carl Freedman, Jeremy Gilbert

Mark Fisher’s K-punk blogs were required reading for a generation
by Simon Reynolds

Remembering Mark Fisher
by David Stubbs

2 thoughts on “Mark Fisher’s Suicide

    • He was talking about capitalism proper. His focus was on present society. Not what preceded it by millennia. Nor the economic precursors in pre-capitalist societies. Capitalism simply didn’t exist until the modern era.

      Sure, you can find proto-capitalist elements in the Axial Age. Then again, you can also find evidence of incipient forms of all kinds of things. There existed what we might call proto-communism, proto-Marxism, proto-liberalism, proto-libertarianism, proto-neoliberalism, proto-neoconservatism, proto-corporatism, proto-fundamentalism, proto-racism, proto-feudalism, proto-globalism, etc. But it would be anachronistic to interpret the ancient world in modern terms. What would later become modern ideologies hadn’t yet coalesced. Some of the early signs were present, just not as fully formed ideological systems.

      When we think of that earlier era, our reference point is the societies that formed following the collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations. In particular, what Westerners use as a starting point is Greece coming out of its dark ages. Out of this milieu emerged democracy, city-state alliances, colonial trade networks, urbanization, cosmopolitanism, syncretism, and eventually Hellenism.

      That is the time of the early Axial Age prophets. New ideas were being formulated, such as proto-scientific thinking. Still, it is easy to forget that those ideas barely took hold at the time. And even among those that did take hold, most of them only did so limitedly and often briefly. Athenian democracy didn’t spread at the time, never applied to most of the population that was enslaved, and disappeared about as quickly as it appeared. The Axial Age prophets, for the most part, were envisioning something different in their protesting and preaching against the prevailing order, and yet the order continued to prevail even as the world was changing. Sometimes Axial Age prophets ended up taking up (proto-)reactionary positions in warning against the disruptions of the Axial Age itself, as with Socrates worrying about literacy and Plato opposing democracy. As the traditional order was being challenged, one might argue that the Axial Age created the conditions that would later become what Corey Robin describes as the reactionary mind, considering the Enlightenment Age was a booming echo of the Axial Age.

      The seeds planted took millennia to grow and bloom, and even the Axial Age prophets had no clue what they were initiating and what it all would become. For certain, no one back then intended to create modern ideological systems like capitalism. Private property wasn’t taken all that seriously back then, as ownership was often tied up with a system of political power involving slavery, caste, proto-feudalism, colonialism, tributary systems, aristocracy, family dynasties, etc. In the Greco-Roman world, liberty was less about a free society than about whether or not individuals were free from oppression (i.e., not slaves) within the dominant oppressive sociopolitical order (liberty had nothing to do with freedom as a Germanic word and ideal). As for economics, trade was primarily whatever was imposed and agreed upon by empires — property being extremely limited to anyone other than those with inherited title and wealth, such that most people were either enslaved or desperately impoverished, either being owned or exploited by the privileged and comfortable minority. The economy in general for most people consisted of subsistence living and local bargaining. After imperial taxation, the average citizen was barely producing enough to survive, often not even enough to survive very long. The average lifespan in southern Europe didn’t increase until after collapse of the Roman imperial order when local governance returned.

      One thing about the Greek Dark Ages and the Bronze Age is that they were a time of mostly local governance which ended with the rise of the Axial Age empires, the largest and most powerful (not to mention the most centralized and hierarchical) empires the world had seen up to that point. That is what made the Roman Empire so multicultural with hundreds of ethnicities, languages, and religions co-existing side by side in small areas of the crowded urban centers.

      The Bronze Age civilizations were particularly interesting, in comparison. These tended to be smaller city-states that were insular until the late period when they approached collapse, not only because of long-lasting massive natural disasters but also maybe because of the introduction of domesticated horses and chariots which allowed for long distance war. They ended up growing beyond the limits of their societal structure, especially during troubled times, since maintaining that order required a closer connection and proximity between the upper and lower classes. They were rather simple societies, such that the Egyptian Empire was able to build pyramids while nearly lacking all infrastructure and as hard as it is to comprehend the evidence shows that those workers weren’t slaves. What motivated those people wasn’t authoritarian oppression as we think about it today for they lacked written rules, professional legal systems, police enforcement, and large standing armies. It was a tight-knit, self-contained cultural world and many have attempted to explain how it was possible (e.g., Julian Jaynes’ bicameral mind).

      Whatever these societies were, they were more of an example of local self-governance than were the later empires that ruled and shaped the Axial Age. Despite this, the Bronze Age societies still managed to have impressive trade networks such as between Egypt and Scandinavia, although not much larger trade happened other than precious metals and other rare materials — besides bronze, anything blue was highly sought after, but most food items couldn’t be transported very far.

      “Why is it so important to understand the origins of the idea of Capitalism, the idea that economic systems based on private property are better than state management of property?”

      That ideal sounds nice in theory. But Mark Fisher was referring to actual existing capitalism. The capitalism we have has more to do with plutocratic cronyism and neoliberal corporatism than with functioning competitive free markets in a functioning social democracy.

      “But neither could these castes have been entirely the product of constant violent coercion. The submission of subjects to caste hierarchy was voluntary because it was made to seem natural. It was Religion that was used to justify non-innate socio-economic hierarchies to the humans who came to live within them. The stratification of these earliest civilizations were justified by reference to Ritual, Architecture, Statuary, and new kinds of Belief that enveloped the unchecked power of kings and priests over laboring subordinates within an aura of permanence, certainty, and infinite power. In short, Religion made the economic power structures of these agricultural societies seem at one with the infinite power of the gods themselves. And priests and kings used Religion’s divine power to promise to their subjects — in exchange for loyal obedience — a level of rewards and compensation that they coul d never grant in tangible material goods. Unquestioned loyalty was rebranded as participation in something greater, something eternal, something absolute, something so much greater than actual oppression, suffering, and death in ostensible slavery.”

      Well, religion as such didn’t exist until the Axial Age. Those earliest civilizations weren’t theocracies for they had no concept of religion. It was simply the social order and they knew nothing else. Julian Jaynes makes the interesting observation that authoritarianism, as we know it, didn’t exist in those earliest civilizations. Social conformity didn’t require authoritarianism because it was internalized within their collective psyche.

      “The notion that Private Property and Voluntary Exchange — i.e. Capitalism — are good emerged at the same time as the notion that economies controlled by status-based theocracies were bad.”

      That didn’t happen until the Enlightenment.

      “Capitalism — at least the idea of Capitalism — has its roots in the skeptical origins of Axial religions. But the problem is that not everyone who advocates for Capitalism gets where the idea comes from. A lot of times, when people argue for Capitalism it is just a vast money grab, and attempt to government to the service of the people who can afford to manipulate state institutions.”

      The idea of capitalism or rather various ideas that would later be identified with capitalism was among a multitude of ideas. There was no single, coherent idea of capitalism in the Axial Age — not even by another name.

      “By the time the twentieth century economist Friedrich Hayek declared the task of economics to be that of showing to men all that they cannot know about everything that they imagine they can plan, the ancient reference points were only occasionally evident.”

      Yeah. I wouldn’t see Hayek as useful for support of your views. He hated democracy and supported fascism.

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