Sunday, 21 March 2010

7: Fisher on NuBureaucracy

In Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (2009) Mark Fisher considers “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” (p2)

Citing Deleuze and Guattari, Fisher emphasizes the pragmatic, improvisational, plastic characteristics of a capitalism capable of “metabolizing and absorbing anything with which it comes into contact” (p6) including the supposedly ‘alternative’,‘independent’ or ‘counter-cultural’. Following Badiou and Žižek , Fisher sees contemporary capitalism as post-ideological – it makes no claim to superiority beyond being the least worst system available. The first contribution of the book is, I think, to highlight the ways in which capitalism fosters and thrives on a deep cynicism not just about the possibility of alternatives but also about capitalism itself. For Fisher this is epitomized by the popularity of hip-hop and gangster films where ‘getting real’ means acknowledging a dog-eat-dog world where there are few winners and many suckers.

But is our current economic and political system as unassailable or ‘realistic’ as it is often presented? Fisher highlights three limits or challenges to capitalist realism. The first of these - the unchecked havoc wreaked on the environment and the rapid depletion of natural resources - is discussed all too briefly. This seems to me a potential system ‘show stopper’ but Fisher prefers to focus on two other issues that might better be seen as challenges to claims for the social utility of capitalism (without necessarily threatening its continuation). The second issue Fisher highlights is an epidemic of mental health problems generated by febrile, uncertain and fragmented contemporary conditions. The third is the disjunction between neo-liberalism’s claims to be ‘flat’, efficient and supportive of personal life projects and its highly bureaucratized practice.

In considering the psychic harm generated by the economic system – epitomized by pressured, ‘no long term’ working conditions and hyper-consumerism – Fisher treads familiar ground. His call for the ‘repoliticisation’ of mental health seems to ignore the many ways in which ‘well-being’ already features in contemporary theory, politics and policy-making. Fisher’s discussion of the issues draws on his past as a teacher in further education but the picture he paints of a permanently distracted, troubled and hedonistic younger generation descends into staff room cliché (‘in my day…’) and certainly did not chime with my experience of students or of living with teenagers.

Fisher makes much better use of his teaching experience when discussing nu-bureaucray. While in neo-liberal rhetoric bureaucracy belongs to a past of State Socialism or Fordism, in practice it lives on.

“ Instead of disappearing, bureaucracy has changed its form; and this new, decentralized, form has allowed it to proliferate. The persistence of bureaucracy in late capitalism does not in itself indicate that capitalism does not work – rather, what it suggests is that the way in which capitalism does actually work is very different from the picture presented by capitalist realism.”
Here lies the main contribution of Fisher’s short book – in highlighting key features of this nu-bureaucracy. The first of these is the way (as in Kafka rather than Weber) it often operates without clear lines of authority and responsibility and via the endless anticipation and (re)interpretation of ambiguous directives.

“On the one hand, bureaucratic procedures float freely, independent of any external authority; but that very autonomy means that they assume a heavy implacability, a resistance to any amendment or questioning.” (p50)
The second is the preoccupation with self- and organizational- audit.
“The proliferation of auditing culture in post Fordism indicates that the demise of the big Other has been exaggerated. Auditing can perhaps best be conceived as fusion of PR and bureaucracy, because the bureaucratic data is usually intended to fulfill a promotional role: in the case of education , for example, exam results or research ratings augment (or diminish) the prestige of particular institutions. The frustration for the teacher is that it seems as if their work is increasingly aimed at impressing the big Other which is collating and consuming this ‘data’.” (p50-51)

As Fisher points out, for staff the data has little meaning outside of the context of audit. The process is shot through with cynicism: the most likely stance of even the most compliant of managers in this situation is likely to be ‘we all know this is nonsense but do it anyway’.

A third feature of contemporary bureaucracy is the requirement to exhibit individually and organizationally flair, spontaneity and a capacity for innovation: in this context ‘satisfactory’ is not good enough. This requires continual self-assessment of performance, indefinite postponement of final judgment, and a Maoist-style emphasis on the confession of failings.

Capitalist Realism’s discussion of nu-bureaucray is recognizable and insightful at the same time. It cries out, however, for further consideration of the relationship between the State and capitalism not least because as Fisher argues capitalism is somehow always ‘efficient’ and its failures are often blamed on government. The book ends with a call to challenge the individualism of neo-liberalism through an updating of notions of the public and of a general will. Fisher struggles here, however, because his analysis is itself deeply pessimistic about government, institutions and people’s priorities: a case of cynic cure thyself?

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