K-punk, capitalist realism and acid communism
At the centre of cultural theorist Mark Fisher’s best known publication, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? is a terrifyingly simple proposition: that as the 21st century dawned, it was easier to imagine the end of the world than it was to imagine the end of capitalism.
Capitalist Realism, published just after the banking meltdown of 2008, articulated the fear that the global consensus around market-led, lightly regulated economics and international trade (aka neoliberalism) was here to stay, despite its glaring failure to deliver prosperity for (most) people or the planet.
The book’s call to find a way to pull up the shutters on this oppressive and blinkered worldview – which Fisher argued pervades not just economic thinking, but the way we experience culture, the parameters of our imagination, and even our own mental health – remains a key reference point for progressive thinkers and activists. Fisher, who struggled with depression and took his own life aged 48 in January 2017, lived long enough to see the neoliberal consensus start to crumble, both in ways he advocated (the rapid rise of a British socialist opposition in the form of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour) and in ways he didn’t (Trump, and the other reactionary nationalist movements that have taken root throughout the Western world).
But as a new anthology of his writings k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher 2004-2016 illustrates vividly, Fisher leaves a deep literary legacy on politics, culture and everything in between. Fisher’s reflections on contemporary culture, particularly through his k-punk blog, were a blend of intellectual theorising and acerbic music, film and popular culture journalism. Reviewing Sleaford Mods in Wire, for example, Fisher describes Jason Williamson’s excoriating prose as his “(E)xcremental flow. Excremental is the right word: piss and shit course through Williamson’s rhymes, as if all the psychic and physical effluent abjected by Cameron’s Britain can no longer be contained, and it’s bursting upwards, exploding through all the deodorised digital commercial propaganda, the thin pretences that we’re all in this together and everything’s going to be all right.”
Fisher’s range was much broader than just music journalism, but his philosophy made a particularly strong impact on a network of curiously-minded musicians. “Mark Fisher will change your life as he did mine,” says Mark Stewart, of politicised post-punk band The Pop Group. “One of the prophetic minds of our times. He encourages you to become even more engaged, even more enraged.”
When studying a PhD at the University of Warwick during the 90s, Fisher was part of an unusually adventurous academic group named the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU). One of his contemporaries was Steve Goodman – the philosopher, Hyperdub labelhead and musician known as Kode9. “His writing on electronic music, film and cyberculture has shaped my own work the most, and influenced the birth of Hyperdub as a web magazine from around 2000-2003,” Goodman explains. “He wrote for this early version of Hyperdub under the name Mark De Rosario, and from Burial to DJ Rashad, he seemed to follow and write about our releases quite closely, even though we rarely met after we both left Warwick.”
The Hyperdub connection should perhaps not be surprising. Goodman’s exploratory music, and the diverse post-dubstep discography of his label formed a key late staging post in the ‘Hardcore Continuum’ idea postulated by Simon Reynolds and engaged with repeatedly by Fisher. Mirroring Reynolds’ theoretically-informed take on popular culture and underground dance music, Fisher wrote ‘in defence’ of the Continuum, supporting Reynolds’ contention that “the most urgent and innovative British dance music of the last 20 years – jungle, speed garage, 2-step, grime, bassline house – belongs to a lineage that started with a mutation of rave at the beginning of the 1990s.”
Both Reynolds and Fisher were also captivated by the concept of ‘hauntology’, in the context of the spectral and nostalgic mutations of dubstep most obviously associated with Burial, Hyperdub’s best known – and most analysed – artist. According to Reynolds, who provides the foreword to the anthology, it was Fisher’s style as well as his substance that shone through: “As much as his actual ideas – which have been so influential, and certainly have influenced me – what I respond to in Mark’s work is the writing, being a writer myself. I admire the way he could distil complex ideas into instantly graspable, punchy statements, which would then work as a kind of concept-slogan, a meme: ‘capitalist realism’, ‘depressive hedonism’, ‘the secret sadness of the 21st century’, so many more.”
“Mark's writing on electronic music, film and cyberculture has shaped my own work and influenced the birth of Hyperdub” – Kode9
Fisher’s k-punk blog operated at the interface between politics and popular culture, and a big part of its appeal was its seemingly infinite range. As the anthology demonstrates, a diverse set of topics caught Fisher’s attention, such that caustic analyses of commercial culture (Star Wars was a Sell Out from the Start) nestle up against riffs on global political themes (Conspicuous Force and Verminisation – on the War Against Terror). As Reynolds puts it, “Although he was intensely serious, Mark could also be savagely funny – usually when he was tearing something to shreds. If he thought something was pernicious or reactionary, he gave no quarter, and ridicule was one of his most effective weapons.”
Despite his deserved reputation as a digital polymath, not everything Fisher wrote was necessarily pushing boundaries. A rant about ‘Glasto’ and ‘Ibiza’ from 2004 confuses a dislike for a particular artist, scene, or moment in time, with something more profound. And, like any collection of blogs and articles reaching back 15 years, not every post retains the resonance it might have had at the time.
But for the most part, his writing is prescient, lucid, and offers a take on music that few others have. From reflections on the intoxicating rhythms of footwork, to the ‘hedonistic sadness’ in the lyrics of rap’s titans (Kanye and Drake), Fisher’s writing fizzes with energy. His analysis of the ‘construction’ of James Blake’s voice, from his early material (where his vocals were typically unintelligible, or simply pitch-shifted moans) to his later work where his voice takes centre stage, is beautifully crafted: “Listening back to Blake’s records in chronological sequence is like hearing a ghost gradually assume material form; or it’s like hearing the song form (re)coalescing out of digital ether.”
Two common threads – cutting through much of his work – were his ‘capitalist realism’ concept (in particular how it constrained popular imagination) and his own struggles with mental health. Indeed, for Fisher the two were intertwined. He discussed his depression through the prism of a political system that presents mental health difficulties as a consumer malfunction, rather than as a symptom of a systematic economic malaise. As he wrote in Capitalist Realism:
“Instead of treating it as incumbent on individuals to resolve their own psychological distress, instead, that is, of accepting the vast privatisation of stress that has taken place over the last 30 years, we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill? The ‘mental health plague’ in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high.”
The k-punk anthology also contains some previously unpublished work, including the tentative beginnings of a line of reasoning that Fisher called ‘Acid Communism’. The concept of acid communism – an idea currently being developed by Jeremy Gilbert, an academic at the University of East London, and a collaborator of Fisher’s – is intended as a kind of antidote to the absence of imagination, and closed-mindedness of ‘capitalist realism’.
With the idea of Acid Communism, Fisher reasoned that the goal of movements on the left – from Marxism to feminism – is on some level the same as that of psychedelic experimentalists: to raise and alter collective consciousness.
Writing after Fisher’s death, Matt Phull and Will Stronge suggest that ‘acid’ should be understood not as drug reference per se, but as an adjective – a term that suggests possibility, alternatives and new ways of thinking. More recently, the term has morphed into ‘Acid Corbynism’, in an attempt to connect the Labour leader’s socialist manifesto with the radical anti-establishment politics that richoched their way around discotheques and dancefloors in the late 60s.
The basic concept captures something that many of us can deeply connect with: that the hedonistic, carefree moments at the centre of dance music culture are not simply throwaway trinkets from a night out, but symbolise and codify something more significant, and offer an escape from capitalist realism. As the musician Jam City puts it in an interview with the political magazine Red Pepper, “Art and music is where you begin. How you feel in an ecstatic club/rave moment… That can be the starting point where you can formulate an opposition to the things that makes you feel shit.”
For Fisher, the suffocating ‘realism’ of capitalism is reflected in culture and our collective mental health. In Capitalist Realism Fisher argued that “No-one embodied (and struggled with) this deadlock more than Kurt Cobain. In his dreadful lassitude and objectless rage, Cobain seemed to give wearied voice to the despondency of the generation that had come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened. Cobain knew that he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance, knew that even realising it is a cliché.”
The algorithmic turn in the marketing of music (whereby our digital movements are very literally tracked, and utilised to sell our preferences back to us) adds an unsettling postscript to this sentiment. But it was Mark Fisher’s ability to pull out the deeper meaning of popular culture ‘as it happened’ that has earned him a place in so many contemporary musicians’ hearts. As Holly Herndon puts it, “(I)n near real time, k-punk wrote about a world in flux, and continues to demonstrate how with artful wit, compassion, and a lot of good music, we might be able to invent a better one for each other. We are all still catching up to his vision.”
Additional reporting: Emily Reynolds
k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher 2004-2016 is published 15 November via Repeater Books