From Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s Met Gala dress to Grimes reading Marx, we are trapped in a Capitalist Realism feedback loop – but can memes save us?
The modern world is at an impasse. Alienated and atomised, supercharged with relentless social media feeds and information overload, the pandemic should have been an opportunity to pause and reflect and connect us in our collective distrust of capitalism’s grind. What we’ve seen instead is a deep dive into apathy. We are the living embodiment of Wojak (AKA Feels Man), or worse, the doomer. Lips parted in a perpetual grimace, we doom scroll Twitter and stroke our chins to Adam Curtis. We watch idly as billionaires jettison off to space in penis rockets as climate change ravages society’s poorest. When AOC dons a dress that says ‘Tax the Rich’, we turn it into a Mark Fisher meme and click share.
If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve come across the flux of Fisher memes making their rounds on Instagram in the last year. A staple of Breadtube and theorygram, the purveyors of Deleuzian catboys and Oedipal shitposters alike, these memes have become synonymous with a particular strain of irony – both painfully self-aware and filled with dread as the future is slowly cancelled around us.
The main source text is Fisher’s 2009 seminal book Capitalist Realism, which states that there is no alternative to capitalism within a neoliberal economic system that repackages every attempt to critique it into pristine commodities. There’s the feeling that we must go on, but can’t. This Catch 22, Fisher argues, results in depression which, in turn, proliferates further feelings of helplessness. Rinse and repeat.
With the pandemic amplifying this further, it’s no wonder that 2020 and 2021 has seen a rise in people struggling to get out of bed in the mornings. Or the popularity of philosophical irony in the memescape. From We Fuckin on the Capitalist Realism Bed to jokerpilled conspiracies and the meta-memes of AOC’s Met Gala dress, philosophical shitposting has been a source of comfort for a generation of disenfranchised young people trying to make sense of the senseless.
“I hate to say it, but we're all probably doomers,” says Instagram meme account Academic Fraud, the anonymous author behind The Memeing of Mark Fisher, a collection of Fisher-related images from the depth of the memescape. The doomer, in this context, is the archetype of the alienated subject of capitalism. Stuck in a feedback loop, they are moved to apathy because there is simply no alternative.
“The doomer proliferates the idea that sitting home and making memes is a rational response to an irrational world,” explains Mike Watson, the author of the recent book, The Memeing of Mark Fisher: How the Frankfurt School Foresaw Capitalist Realism and What To Do About It, in a recent interview with Zero Books. “It’s effectively the 21st century equivalent of the post-war existentialist injunction that in a meaningless universe, someone has to choose something to pursue.”
Mark Fisher memes are ironic for a number of reasons. Like the Che Guevara t-shirt, or the photograph of Grimes reading Marx, the popularity of Fisher in the memescape transforms his message into a commodity. “He would have hated everything our ‘little community’ has done to promote him and his book. He would think that we’re making fun of him,” says Academic Fraud. Like the coopting of Fisher’s now-defunct Boring Dystopia Facebook page, Fisher memes can be interpreted as a microcosm of capitalist cyberspace – the endless information from users is meaningless when put in the context of a tech giants such as Instagram or Twitter.
An extension of this is that the meme becomes a placeholder for the text itself. Stripped of critical thinking, it is digested and rehashed again and again. This is then, in turn, sold off as data – and the cycle starts again. Facebook groups like Mark Fisher Memes for Hauntological Teens and Mark Fisher Depressive Ghostposting, for example, have amassed huge followings. Here, zoomers can discuss theories of anti-capitalism and hauntology, though admittedly on a superficial level. While these groups can function as gateways into Fisher’s theories, many have criticised them as mere memeic reductions. “It’s a joke that’s simultaneously on us as leftists for carrying on this pantomime as if our critiques of capitalism can achieve anything, when they can’t,” explains Watson.
Then again, there’s a lot to be said about overintellectualising what is, essentially, a meme. “The purpose of shitposting at large is to make someone laugh or to make someone mad: a successful post does both at the same time,” adds Academic Fraud. They maintain that posting Fisher memes is a way to introduce his philosophy to a younger audience. “I would be bold enough to claim that the sight of so many Capitalist Realism memes have led to a younger generation discovering the book and, for fear of being ‘left out’, read it. They quickly find it a somber companion to the many jokes they’ve seen on the timeline. But at least they have read the source material.”
Perhaps the descent into Wojakery is too tempting. Perhaps Fisher memes are just another way for us doompilled beta lefties to digest our own political and systemic defeat in the arms of neoliberalism. “It chimes with multiple internet subcultures: jokerpilled conspiracy bro’s with sigma energy, softboi mansplainers, soc-dems, brocialists, doomers, anarcho-coms, catpilled revolutionaries, the terminally irony-poisoned, the endlessly sincere, and basically all leftists in every form,” explains phonewifey, a musician heavily embedded in the memescape. “The crazy part is they can all make compound memes about Mark Fisher to laugh at everyone else’s misinterpretation of the source material.”
Chances are Fisher would’ve hated the idea of fucking on the Capitalist Realism bed. He would have probably found the constant repackaging of his image insufferable too. But “the tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism,” he writes in the 2009 book. With the pandemic fuelling a move towards mysticism, digital psychedelia can help us to rediscover “the dream time that capitalist realism has eclipsed”. So, maybe not all is lost.