S. Shabzadeh | End of the World: The Contemporary Struggle to Imagine a World Beyond Capitalism

By S. Shabzadeh

Since the end of the Cold War nearly three decades ago, the left has been unable to overcome the triumph of neoliberal capitalism. Professor Harcourt and Professor Saar’s poignant discussion of Pollock, Neumann, Adorno, and Marcuse’s respective theories highlight the plethora of lenses by which the form of Western capitalism can be understood and critiqued, the discussion revealed that such theories offer little in terms of praxis. While the Frankfurt School’s theories offer much in terms of prognosis of the ailment of late capitalism, they offer little in terms of prescribing a cure. This dearth of imagination has continued into the twenty-first century as even during the upheaval of capitalism’s most serious existential crises, the left failed to offer a viable alternative even in light of capitalism’s most egregious failures in the 2008 financial crisis and, now, with the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic crisis. While the left has demonstrated its capacity to identify the modes of capitalist oppression and criticize its effects, the left has yet to offer a true political and economic alternative to capitalism.

The Sterility of the American Left

On January 21, 2021, Donald Trump is set to transfer power to the declared-winner of the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election, Joe Biden. While Biden promises his coming term to be a “return to normalcy, ” his victory masks deeper divisions within the Democratic party itself.[1] Biden’s nomination as the Democratic nominee came about as a result of an intra-party ideological civil war and a concerted effort to prevent the rise of Sanders and the American left.

As the former Vice-President to Barack Obama, Biden represented the ancien régime of Democratic centrists that held the presidency before Trump’s right wing populism swept into power. On the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, Bernie Sanders represented a coalition of progressives and leftists critical of not only the policies of Donald Trump but also the policies of centrist Democrats which have dominated the Democratic Party since the presidency of Bill Clinton in the 1990’s. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns absorbed much of the enthusiasm and energy of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement and brought socialist and leftist discourse into mainstream U.S. politics. Both in his 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns, Sanders embraced the label ‘democratic socialist’ and levied scathing critiques against the forces of what he called “unfettered capitalism” as the only U.S. presidential candidate in living memory critical of capitalism. Despite popular support for his policies and ideals and his promising early performance in the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primaries, Sanders was ultimately defeated by Joe Biden and his coalition of centrist Democrats. Invoking concerns of ‘electability’ and stoking fears of the rise of the ‘radical left,’ Biden rallied his former centrist Democratic rivals and secured their endorsements to ultimately defeat Sanders and his coalition.

However, Sanders’ performance in both the 2016 and 2020 Democratic Party presidential primaries demonstrated that the political will to radically reform or even replace capitalism exists in certain sectors of American society. This assertion is supported by polling evidence throughout the 2020 presidential campaign which demonstrated that a majority of woman and young Americans support socialist policies and are critical of capitalism and its effects.[2] Beyond those who are directly critical of capitalism and support socialist policies, since the 2008 financial crisis, critiques of capitalism and its effects have spread well beyond the American left. Trump’s victory in 2016 materialized due to anti-capitalist sentiments on the American right spurred by mass discontent among the country’s white, working class who mostly resided in post-industrial states and counties.[3] However, despite the discontent with the effects of capitalism, Sanders and American left failed to garner the support of the vast majority of the American working class.  Ultimately, Trump’s nativism and populism proved more successful at capturing the support of the U.S.’s disaffected working class.

While Sanders was successful in inspiring a generation of young people to embrace socialism and criticize capitalism, Sanders’ presidential platform in both runs ultimately fell short of the anti-capitalist “political revolution” he promised. Sanders’ most radical policies, such as single-payer healthcare and tuition-free public colleges, have been the norm in Western European welfare states for nearly half a century now. Sanders’ social democratic policies were designed to reform capitalism and mitigate for its negative effects rather than present a viable alternative to late capitalism. Indeed, Sanders’ appeal to Franklin Delano Roosevelt throughout his 2020 Presidential campaign was telling in that his platform embraced Roosevelt’s New Deal Keynesianism which sought to reign in ‘unfettered capitalism’ rather than envisioning a society beyond capitalism. Despite his success in bringing socialist and leftist critiques of capitalism to the American political mainstream, Sanders’ political revolution ultimately fell victim to the lack of imagination which has been endemic among the left.

Capitalist Realism

It should come as no surprise that a viable alternative to capitalism did not emerge from the U.S. electoral system. While Sanders’ defeat demonstrates that the mechanisms of American political party politics are effective at rooting out ideologies unfavorable to capitalism, his defeat also demonstrates that, at the national level, American leftist political discourse has been unable to imagine a true alternative to capitalism. And yet, despite the sterility of the left’s political and intellectual class, no promising alternative has emerged from the margins of American society.

So, why hasn’t this alternative to capitalism emerged from those which it oppresses and disadvantages the most? As Saar pointed out in his concluding thoughts during the seminar, the grip of capitalism on us is deep due to capitalism’s unique nature as a subjectivizing force that cannot be overcome simply through political will. Capitalism is a system that is at once both universal and particularizing, totalizing and individualizing. Capitalism has made us who we are and mediates each and every one of our social relations, and thus, dominates our subjectivity and sets the limits of our imagination.

In his book Capitalist Realism, British critical theorist Mark Fisher coined the phrase ‘capitalist realism’ to describe capitalism’s sterilizing effect on our imaginations as the “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible to imagine a coherent alternative to it.”[4] Capitalist realism is an effective critical lens by which to understand how individual subjectivity is shaped, and limited, by capitalism. Fisher posits that it is precisely because individual subjectivity has been shaped by capitalism that the vast majority of people seem to not be able to see their own impoverishment of experience under capitalism. According to Fisher this is achieved by capitalist realism acting as a sort of imaginative constraint as it conditions “…not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.”[5] Fisher argues that this is the ultimate triumph of the capitalist realism as it brushes over the impoverishment of the individual experience by limiting thought, imagination, and even resistance.

Capitalist realism has so captured our subjectivities and imaginations, Fisher argues, that even anti-capitalist resistance falls victim to capitalist realism. Absorbing critique and externalities from the margins of society, capitalist realism not only allows for anti-capitalist resistance but, indeed, embraces it as it only works to reinforce capitalism by subjugating critique into a spectacle and coopting it for its own legitimation. For example, this past summer, the Black Lives Matter movement spread across the United States following the killing of George Floyd. Millions of protesters across the United States called for the defunding and abolishment of the police along with varying levels of critique of the prison industrial complex, corporatism, and capitalism in the United States. As one of the main benefactors of the American police state and prison industrial complex, one would think that corporate America would respond negatively to the Black Lives Matter movement and its message. Instead, in a live demonstration of Fisher’s capitalist realism, corporate America responded by preempting any criticism stemming from this social movement by coopting the message of the streets and protecting themselves with various ‘racial justice’ value statements, pledges, and other actions.[6] For example, the NBA absorbed the criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement, incorporating the movement’s anti-racism slogans, symbolism and imagery into its own marketing in order to legitimize the restart of the basketball season even during a global health crisis.[7]

Imagining the End of the World.

Reflecting on Harcourt and Saar’s discussion of the abolition of capital through the lens of the Frankfurt School theorists’ critical theory in light of Fisher’s theory of capitalist realism, I was reminded of a common saying on the left  attributed to Frederic Jameson and Slavoj Zizek, that: “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.”[8]

However, this past year has demonstrated that capitalism does have its limits. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic radically reshaped our daily reality as individual lives, families and societies were uprooted and upended by the virus. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing global economic crisis brought an end to the world  as we knew it. The death and destruction magnified the effects of poverty and inequality and laid bare that the logic of capitalism–market-rewarded self-interested behavior–has been the source of not only much of the suffering wrought by the pandemic but also society’s prior inequities and injustices. As a result, governments and societies around the world have begun looking beyond the logic of capitalism and experimenting with universal basic incomes, shortened work weeks, among other stop-gap solutions. While COVID-19 has not spelled the end for capitalism, it has, rather, allowed us to imagine the end of the world as we know it–and that might just be the beginning.


[1] https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/5/20/18631452/joe-biden-2020-presidential-announcement-speech

[2] See https://www.axios.com/exclusive-poll-young-americans-embracing-socialism-b051907a-87a8-4f61-9e6e-0db75f7edc4a.html and https://www.axios.com/axios-hbo-poll-55-percent-women-prefer-socialism-f70bf87e-34fd-4b63-b1f6-2f2b6900f634.html

[3] https://www.axios.com/capitalism-opposition-2020-election-trump-democrats-5c7747b3-d581-49a9-8f8b-61c7b05211d3.html

[4] Fisher, Capitalist Realism, 2.

[5] Fisher, Capitalist Realism, 16.

[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/23/insider/business-racism.html

[7] https://nba.nbcsports.com/2020/11/30/adam-silver-no-data-black-lives-matter-on-court-hurt-nba-ratings/#:~:text=The%20NBA%20purposefully%20made%20social,LIVES%20MATTER%E2%80%9D%20on%20the%20court.

[8] Fisher, Capitalist Realism, 2.

Fonda Shen