What if?

I’m fascinated by Hauntology, Mark Fisher’s formulation from his superb book–Capitalist Realism, where he wonders what would have been if there were an alternative to neoliberalism. Fisher feared that we were losing our ability to conceptualize a tomorrow that was radically different from our present and asks what happened to the future?

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, globalization, finance capital, mass consumerism, and mass media have asserted dominance over not just every sector of the world but of our social relations, our behavior and minds, our hopes and dreams. But this economic and cultural hegemony doesn’t exist purely in recognition of itself; its power and very presence is “haunted not by the apparition of the spectre of communism, but by its disappearance.”

What haunts us isn’t merely an imagined idyllic time before global market crashes, terrorism, and the constant interconnectedness of a digital, online world, but what might have been if the imposition and then acceleration of neoliberalism was frustrated by an alternative. Inundated and obsessed with the past and locked into a dismal present, we long for lost futures.

What if we had chosen a different path in response to the stagflation of the 1970’s? Perhaps a true democratic-republic with a robust, caring society, instead of a selfish neoliberal market economy?

In the US the dismal future of neoliberalism and capitalist realism was laid out forcefully with the Powell Memo. Corporate attorney and future Supreme Court justice, Lewis Powell recognized the dangers of alternatives to capitalism, especially at the university setting. The the campus agitation and revolt of the 1960’s had made a strong impression on him and he argued for a response. The result was depressingly brilliant–make students pay for their education and their parents pay pay for everything else. Instead of publicly funded higher education, where arts, critical thinking and critique could flower, there would be debt. Instead of a strong safety net and web of infrastructure there would be the market, where you could pay for all the services of the state.

And now there’s another book out that examines how all of this turned out.

Neil Vallelly’s Futilitarianism: Neoliberalism and the Production of Uselessness is a polemic against the emptiness of the neoliberal era. It examines both its ideological roots, history, and political culture.

Neoliberals felt that by encasing the market from democratic pressures and disciplining the population by gutting agency-enhancing social programs, the narrow freedoms remaining to individuals — to compete and consume in the market — would lead them to become immeasurably more productive, often by necessity in a sink or swim world. They also believed (erroneously) that people would become much, much more creative when the nanny-state was eviscerated.

Instead neoliberalism has taken away a lot of creativity, joy and social interaction, things that make life worth living, because ultimately neoliberalism is a moral project. Neoliberalism from the beginning was conceived as a fundamentally moral project to make the world safer for property while fashioning individuals into entrepreneurs of the self.

The dark side to this is the responsibilization of the individual for all their problems, even those that don’t fall under their control. Worried about global warming? Don’t blame big oil, think of how often you tossed a can into the trash rather than recycle. Can’t get insurance or pay your medical bills? Consider cutting back on alcohol and bad food to save money and improve your health. The result was not just a depoliticization of life, but a dynamic of disempowerment through futility. As the 1 percent internalized the sense that they alone were responsible for their success, so too was everyone else made to feel like the cause of their own failure.

This leads to the sense of futility and emptiness Vallelly powerfully diagnoses as emblematic of neoliberal capitalism. Communities and political movements are disaggregated into atomized individuals and identities. If fact identity politics is the perfect embodiment of neoliberalism, something that liberals don’t want to discuss. Instead, individuals and groups are paradoxically made to feel that relentless but narrow self-improvement, the pursuit of wealth, power, and status within the system is all that matters, and that they are powerless to change that same system.

One of the most alienating features of neoliberalism is how it naturalizes history out of existence. Since there is “no alternative” to the world as it is, aesthetics becomes the endless recycling of cultural images and symbols from the past, a pastiche of postmodern nostalgia for a time where people could actually make a difference. Even language, arts and music becomes increasingly incapable of bearing the gravitas of meaning we need it to burdened as it has become by commercialization. The commodification of creativity is one of the hallmarks of neoliberalism, which has the frustrating ability to mutate faster than the forces that oppose it. The upshot is that our world has become increasingly inauthentic.

At this point, the very idea of the common good is under relentless attack. The real animus behind these attacks is hostility to the idea of the society, the notion that we should care about and for one another, the very idea that we have interests in common that we can and should address collectively, through government as well as other forms of social organization.

Since caring for one another is our natural state, a sustained program of propaganda is in place to convict us that the only values are wealth and self. Hence capitalist realism and Hauntology have come to dominate American culture even as everyone pretends to ignore it.

Even as Mark Fisher critiqued neoliberalism and capitalist realism while asking how its inconsistencies might be challenged, the toll that it took on him was always apparent. Unfortunately, Fisher articulated the feelings of sadness or despondency that seem increasingly common across the political spectrum. Finally, it was too much to bear. Suffering from depression and haunted by capitalist realism, Fisher committed suicide in 2017.

As we get ready to celebrate the birth of a true revolutionary, one who rejected the exploitive empire of his time, it’s more important than ever that we honor Fisher by agitating for an alternative to a system that seeks to reduce everything that was once regarded as personal or unique or holy to the status of interchangeable, salable commodities.

Merry Christmas.

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