U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Capitalist Realism and the Liberalism of Fear

Two weeks ago I began discussing some of what I see as the flaws in the left critique of (neo-)liberalism, beginning with the charge that liberals lack imagination, and that liberalism as a political philosophy stunts or enfeebles the political imagination. Today I’d like to advance that idea a little further, once again making use of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism and thinking about the possibility that the perspective or ethos which Fisher calls by that name might be treated a little more respectably as an expression of what Judith Shklar named the liberalism of fear.

The pertinence of this connection, I think, ought to be clear, as I am writing the day after Marine Le Pen was soundly beaten but still managed to carry off about a third of the vote in the second round of the French presidential election. The most common response was relief, but relief of two kinds. One might be represented by Yascha Mounk, who wrote even before the first round of voting that a Macron win would be a “sensation.” The other variety seems to be represented well by this tweet by MSNBC host Chris Hayes, which is almost a year old but which I see retweeted almost every time now that an election occurs with a similar cast of characters:

Briefly in what follows, I want to explore the meaning of those first three words: “I don’t want.” For in a very real sense, the division we see between someone like Mounk and someone like Hayes is activated by a difference in taste, by a kind of aesthetic judgment about the liberalism of fear. Is there something distasteful about having to vote for an unappealing candidate in order to block a serious threat to democracy and minority rights?

If you spend any time with a three-year-old, you will learn that being forced to do something you do not wish to do is not only frustrating or irksome but baffling and confusing. The ability to process that an independent will is taking precedence over one’s own  is a skill that humans do not seem to be born with. That this independent will is often acting out of opaque and possibly unknowable reasons only adds to the shock and confusion which accompanies the learning of this skill; there is a very real pathos in the eyes of a child when they lock up because of the cognitive and emotional demands generated by the need to respond to a command that contravenes their immediate wishes.

I am not beginning here, with a three-year-old, to make an invidious comparison with the left: they act like toddlers! I am attempting rather the opposite: I hope to give due acknowledgment and respect to the disorientation that comes with the abrupt transformation of the act of voting from preference to a sort of civil defense. In times such as these, one’s vote is not one’s own; it is severed from a pure act of conscience and judgment and becomes the possession of a public interest that may not be in tune with one’s own interests on numerous concrete questions. There is something violating about having to use one’s vote in this manner.

That may be true, and yet it does not condition the aesthetic response that one may have to this violation: one may find it repellent or invigorating, or one may find it simply, shall we say in honor of the French, comme il faut. Whether we want to sacrifice our vote in this manner–whether it is our preference to do so, whether we find it pleasing to do so–is an open question.

And that question will be answered, I think, by how one responds to the liberalism of fear, by whether one thinks that the crushing of the worst is an act worth praising or if we must keep the champagne on ice until we have made some progress toward the best. Is merely defeating inhumanity worth a cheer?

Judith Shklar’s essay “The Liberalism of Fear” is a tremendously subtle and sinuous work, and I cannot do justice to it here. But it has struck me each time I read it how coy and cool she is in introducing and advancing this concept: it is not put before the reader as a definition or a declaration, but almost as an afterthought, as if the essay always needs to talk about something different, something which consumes the writer’s attention while its titular concern only nibbles diffidently.

But if the liberalism of fear means something hard and unequivocal, it is that something dire–religious persecution, xenophobia, state corruption–makes utopianism unattainable and lesser-evilism unavoidable. There is no alternative.

As I pointed out in the post linked above, “TINA” is Mark Fisher’s basic definition for capitalist realism–which, it is worth noting, is an explicitly aesthetic rather than philosophical or political category, a kind of play on “socialist realism.” What is distasteful or repugnant about capitalist realism is that it refuses to be utopian, that it forces everyone constantly to accept the least-worst option and not even to peek at a better world.

Fisher, I think, believed that no one could seriously feel anything other than anger at such an aesthetic, that one’s judgment of the world produced under such conditions would be unremitting repulsion. Those who profess to find something inspiring or emancipatory in a candidate like Macron or Clinton must have not only gross politics but gross taste, a perverse sense of political aesthetics.

If we shift our terms back from capitalist realism to the liberalism of fear, however, we must at least acknowledge that there have been numerous people who have found something noble and vital about fighting against the worst, and perhaps especially so if that means one is fighting in the name of the least-worst. There is a kind of political taste, I think, which distrusts the sublimity of utopia and prefers the certainty of fighting for the more easily identifiable lesser-of-two-evils. There are no maps to utopia; the ways to the least-worst option are well marked and strongly lit.

I am not, to conclude, making a case for this perspective, or rather for this aesthetic. But I am making the case that the kind of dismissal and blithe incomprehension of the robustness and sincerity of this aesthetic which I have observed frequently over the past year is not intellectually or politically serious self-obvious. It is itself an aesthetic judgment.

Edit (5/9 7:50): I struck through “serious” in the last paragraph above and replaced it with “self-obvious.” It is closer to what I intended, but last night I wrote “serious” out of a sense of frustration and fatigue. Clearly, the attitude of someone like Hayes is serious–in the sense of earnest–but I’m not sure his desire for something better than a battle of the least-worst vs. the worst is so unquestionable as he seems to presume.

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Hey Andy :), how goes it?

    So, responding to this places me in the awkward position of having what I’m sure is a predictable response. But hey, predictability can also be a byproduct of consistency and coherence, so I’ll give myself and ask for the benefit of the doubt there.

    Describing the various responses to the necessity of lesser-evilism as “a difference in taste, by a kind of aesthetic judgment” runs into the same problem, it seems to me, as most work on sensibility or taste or whatever phrase you think captures it best — simply put, it’s a description that gets us nowhere. It’s not that we’re not pointing out a real thing, but that it’s not at all clear what the significance of that is. “I love rock music, you love classical” speaks to aesthetics clearly enough, and, I would think for anyone bothering to highlight it, is supposed to mean something. But if that’s where we end, not where we start, I don’t, to be quite frank, get the point. *Why* does one love rock music instead of classical? If the answer is “there is this history of a sensibility” that just goes on to describe it more, then we’re not really getting anywhere, are we?

    Of course what I’m driving at is that unless there is some solid social or political content here we can grasp at, I honestly don’t know what we’re talking about or, more importantly, why we are talking about it. There is a gentle hinting in this post that those, like Hayes, who are exasperated with the available political options and refrain from celebrating the continuity of the crappy status-quo (simply because it’s not becoming dystopian) are indulging in some kind of purity politics. Surely some are — because you know, people are people all over the place, in every political position — but do you think this is really socially, as in structurally or historically, important? You’re shying away from such a commitment, I know, but I’m pressing on this point anyway.

    Because of course, from the perspective of people who were relieved but not excited yesterday, the more important thing about that perspective is the political critique it is connected to: that the privileged only freak out about the damage racial capitalism has wrought when it is pointed their way, and while for sure, minorities and the marginalized don’t want a Trump or Le Pen running the show, for anyone with an anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist consciousness, this is just another bullet dodged, a reprieve that their prison guards might keep beating them up but aren’t dragging them out to the firing yard, just yet. So yeah, it’s a relief. But you’re still in the prison cell. How much do you think you would feel like popping out the champagne?

    Does this involve an aesthetic, a sensibility that may sometimes participate in a politics of purity? Yes, sure. But unless you are prepared to make a casual and/or consequential argument about that, again I’m not sure what your point is other than, people are never purely rational about their politics; they fulfill other human needs/desires as well. Well, yes. But — and I guess I could really have summed up my entire argument with this one phrase: so what?

    (To be clear, I’m not saying there is no substantive answer to “so what?” — but simply that you’ve got to answer it, sooner or later.)

  2. Robin Marie,
    Thanks for your response–it gives me a lot to think over!

    I want to reiterate that my argument here and in the last post was that the left has of late seemed to fixate on liberalism’s lack of imagination as one of its key deficiencies. Liberalism’s aversion to imagining in a vital and energetic way an alternative to the status quo is, to many, the supreme proof of its bankruptness as an ideology and as a political economy.

    I don’t really think that’s arguable. At least since the late 90s, this has been the refrain.

    What I am trying to do here is to insist that this assumption about the nature of (neo)liberalism needs to be rethought, that we ought to spend some time examining the possibility that neoliberalism may have some hidden imaginative resources that the left has not taken the time to notice much less to explore. I don’t think it’s a politics of purity that’s the problem but rather a kind of aesthetics of impatience: because the appeal of the neoliberal imagination is not readily apparent, the left turns away in disgust and imagines that there is no appeal, no imagination, no strength of spirit or mind. The left sees neoliberalism as hollow; I’m arguing that it hasn’t taken the time to find out if that’s correct.

    • Hi Andy —

      Sure, that was what I read your first post in this series as saying. But this second follow up doesn’t seem to support it or, that’s not apparent yet. If you’re going to argue in the future that feeling enthusiastic about lesser-evilism points towards that larger political imagination of neoliberalism, I’ll look forward to that. But here, all we have is a critique of a tendency on the left, cast as an aesthetic preference. Again, I would ask, so what?

      As for impatience rather than purity, ok, I see that and grant it is valid: then again, one is impatient when (following my previous metaphor) you’ve been in jail forever and, moreover, insisting on that impatience has always been kind of the job, and the historical role, of the left. Otherwise we would all be reformists, no?

  3. Andy,
    we must at least acknowledge that there have been numerous people who have found something noble and vital about fighting against the worst, and perhaps especially so if that means one is fighting in the name of the least-worst.

    I’m not sure about the last clause, but a paradigm case of finding something noble in fighting against the worst would be the resistance to fascism in first half of C20th, e.g. in the Spanish civil war or the resistance in occupied countries during WW2. The problem, istm, for the broader argument though is that these might have been rather special cases, where people were willing to sink temporarily most or all of their differences to fight against something that was unambiguously bad capital B, and moreover so bad that fighting it took precedence over everything else. One could try to argue that e.g. Macron v. Le Pen is analogous, and probably in some ways it is, but I don’t think the post really makes that argument. (Nor is it clear to me yet what this series sees the content of ‘the (neo)liberal imagination’ as being.)

    There is a kind of political taste, I think, which distrusts the sublimity of utopia and prefers the certainty of fighting for the more easily identifiable lesser-of-two-evils.

    Well, I don’t know about taste, but there is a kind of politics that distrusts utopia and prefers the certainty of fighting for the lesser-of-two-evils. That can be a defensible position, but it’s the kind of thing that is inspirational maybe only in special circumstances.

    OTOH, the reaction of some Macron supporters (I don’t know what proportion b.c I haven’t been following it closely) does seem to have been real enthusiasm, not just relief. So maybe one could make the argument. However, like Robin Marie above, I’m not sure the emphasis on taste really works or is apt here.

    • Thanks, Louis. I’ll try to draw what I mean by taste out in the next post.

  4. This is a fascinating post, lots to munch on, as always! I do coincide with Robin and Louis in not grasping fully the role of aesthetic judgment in the context that is described here, at least in my understanding of aesthetic theory, from Kant to Adorno and Rancière and onward. This is not to say that there are no affective or aesthetic elements (if we understand aesthetic in the pre-modern sense, as a bodily sensorium) enacted in these subject positions. indeed, there is a plethora of them, but–to use the discourse of literary and aesthetic theory–this can be read as a question of form–an affective or aesthetic formalism–that does not engage fully with the sphere of content. Or, better, that in creating a division between one and the other, it misses the fact that these are inseparable elements that are always in perpetual interplay–a Marxist would say in a dialectical relationship, while a Deleuzean and other theorists of ontology would do away completely with this separation and the idea of representation, for what Deleuze called virtuality.

    Now, there is certainly a value judgment happening in Hayes’s words, and this is a judgment that is not fully political. I think what is being described in this post corresponds ultimately to the question of a moral imperative. Utopias after all are founded on the articulation of universal moral ideals, such as full equality and absolute freedom, which are, again, to be determined through a universalist viewpoint. Indeed, even as Marx derided utopian socialism for latching on to a bourgeois type of moralism, one cannot read his thought without taking into account this type of judgment I am describing. In addition, the moral realm also incorporates affect and aesthetic concerns–as well as the poltical–so I wonder if that might not be a productive route.

    • Thanks, Kahlil! I do think the moral realm is an important consideration, but for me the way Hayes expressed himself was closer to a consumer’s statement of preference rather than a moralist’s statement of justice or right or something of that nature.

      Let me be a bit more specific wrt Hayes, because I’m not sure I will be picking back up on what he said in my next post.

      Hayes could have said, “Austerity and xenophobia are equally wrong,” or “are equally evil” or “cruel” or something of that nature. That, to me, would have been a moral statement, and so would “neoliberalism and ethnonationalism are both evil” or something along those lines. Or he could have said something like “neoliberalism and ethnonationalism are both inadequate policies for addressing the real problems the world faces”–more of an analytical statement, though with a strongly normative implication and some tacit assumptions about what the world’s “real problems” are.

      “I don’t want” seems to gather its force from other sources, though–and it may be that those sources are in addition to implicit moral and analytical sources. We know from the context of his statement that Hayes does think neoliberalism and ethnonationalism are not smart policies for remedying what’s wrong today, and we similarly can presume that he thinks there is something morally wrong with them.

      But what is the response he is trying to engender? Not moral disgust but a kind of exhaustion and an abhorrence of the repetition of the same old, same old political drama we’ve already seen multiple times now. Particularly as a television personality, it seems difficult not to read this statement of preference as a kind of “ugh, do I have to cover this same kind of election again?”

      That response, to me, is not triggered by a moral principle or intuition but rather a question of taste: “I find this tedious.” It may be a lot of other things also (including morally odious), but I’m not sure how to get around the foregrounding of Hayes’s preference that something new, something original, bold, fresh, exciting would come along.

      As I’ll try to show next week, that’s so much what Mark Fisher is on about in talking about capitalist realism: there are a lot of problems with capitalism, but the problem with capitalist realism is that it’s repetitious, tedious, monochrome, unoriginal. I’m not sure how we can read that reaction as anything but aesthetic.

      • This is much clearer, I follow your argument better now. Not sure if I see the tedium in Hayes’s twee necessarily (in his case it might be more a return to certain “old” economic, political, and moral principles; and he is not exactly saying that the two options are “old”). But I do look forward to the discussion about capitalist realism. What you are describing here is fascinating to me, perhaps because I am not really familiar with this type of narrative– about neoliberalism or capitalism for that matter– since I am much more used to the conventional equivalence between creativity and the logic of capital, be it from anti or pro-capitalist positions.

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