If capitalist realism is so seamless, and if current forms of resistance are so hopeless and impotent, where can an effective challenge come from? A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism. Poverty, famine and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated easily painted as naive utopianism. 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.
The current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness. The chemico-biologization of mental illness is of course strictly commensurate with its depoliticization. Considering mental illness an individual chemico-biological problem has enormous benefits for capitalism. First, it reinforces Capital’s drive towards atomistic individualization (you are sick because of your brain chemistry). Second, it provides an enormously lucrative market in which multinational pharmaceutical companies can peddle their pharmaceuticals (we can cure you with our SSRls). It goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation. If it is true, for instance, that depression is constituted by low serotonin levels, what still needs to be explained is why particular individuals have low levels of serotonin. This requires a social and political explanation; and the task of repoliticizing mental illness is an urgent one if the left wants to challenge capitalist realism.
However, questions arise. Are there people who aren't naive realists, or special situations in which naive realism disappears? My theory—the self-model theory of subjectivity—predicts that as soon as a conscious representation becomes opaque (that is, as soon as we experience it as a representation), we lose naive realism. Consciousness without naive realism does exist. This happens whenever, with the help of other, second-order representations, we become aware of the construction process—of all the ambiguities and dynamical stages preceding the stable state that emerges at the end. When the window is dirty or cracked, we immediately realize that conscious perception is only an interface, and we become aware of the medium itself. We doubt that our sensory organs are working properly. We doubt the existence of whatever it is we are seeing or feeling, and we realize that the medium itself is fallible. In short, if the book in your hands lost its transparency, you would experience it as a state of your mind rather than as an element of the outside world. You would immediately doubt its independent existence. It would be more like a book-thought than a book-perception. Precisely this happens in various situations—for example, In visual hallucinations during which the patient is aware of hallucinating, or in ordinary optical illusions when we suddenly become aware that we are not in immediate contact with reality. Normally, such experiences make us think something is wrong with our eyes. If you could consciously experience earlier processing stages of the representation of the book In your hands, the image would probably become unstable and ambiguous; it would start to breathe and move slightly. Its surface would become iridescent, shining in different colors at the same time. Immediately you would ask yourself whether this could be a dream, whether there was something wrong with your eyes, whether someone had mixed a potent hallucinogen into your drink. A segment of the wall of the Ego Tunnel would have lost its transparency, and the self-constructed nature of the overall flow of experience would dawn on you. In a nonconceptual and entirely nontheoretical way, you would suddenly gain a deeper understanding of the fact that this world, at this very moment, only appears to you.
The fantastic is in complicity with the realist model, in the claims that realism makes to represent the true face of reality. It points to the gaps and inadequacies of realism, but does not question the legitimacy of its claims to represent reality. The concept of “suspension of disbelief', that beloved criterion of positivist criticism supposedly serving to establish the legitimacy of the fantastic, confirms this hegemony.
For real human beings, the only realism is an embodied realism.
Capitalist realism insists on treating mental health as if it were a natural fact, like weather (but, then again, weather is no longer a natural fact so much as a political-economic effect). In the 1960s and 1970s, radical theory and politics (Laing, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, etc.) coalesced around extreme mental conditions such as schizophrenia, arguing, for instance, that madness was not a natural, but a political, category. But what is needed now is a politicization of much more common disorders. Indeed, it is their very commonness which is the issue: in Britain, depression is now the condition that is most treated by the NHS. In his book The Selfish Capitalist, Oliver James has convincingly posited a correlation between rising rates of mental distress and the neoliberal mode of capitalism practiced in countries like Britain, the USA and Australia. In line with James’s claims, I want to argue that it is necessary to reframe the growing problem of stress (and distress) in capitalist societies. Instead of treating it as incumbent on individuals to resolve their own psychological distress, instead, that is, of accepting the vast privatization of stress that has taken place over the last thirty years, we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill?
Realism can break a writer's heart.
[W]hat counts as ‘realistic’, what seems possible at any point in the social field, is defined by a series of political determinations. An ideological position can never be really successful until it is naturalized, and it cannot be naturalized while it is still thought of as a value rather than a fact. Accordingly, neoliberalism has sought to eliminate the very category of value in the ethical sense. Over the past thirty years, capitalist realism has successfully installed a ‘business ontology’ in which it is simply obvious that everything in society, including healthcare and education, should be run as a business. … [E]mancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable.
Realism is knowing fantasy and reality intersect constantly. Realism is living with the awareness that every act changes the world.
In the language of the day it is customary to describe a certain sort of book as “escapist” literature. As I understand it, the adjective implies, a little condescendingly, that the life therein depicted cannot be identified with the real life which the critic knows so well in W.C.1: and may even have the disastrous effect on the reader of taking him happily for a few hours out of his own real life in N.W.8. Why this should be a matter for regret I do not know; nor why realism in a novel is so much admired when realism in a picture is condemned as mere photography; nor, I might add, why drink and fornication should seem to bring the realist closer to real life than, say, golf and gardening.