Capitalist Realism is described by Fisher as the capitalist ontology of the post-Fordist era, where capitalism ends in terms of its ability to expand but is so ingrained into the political and cultural imagination that society cannot conceive of anything beyond it (Fisher, Capitalist Realism 1-2). Fisher wrote Capitalist Realism in the wake of the 2008 financial crash and subsequent disruptions to economy and culture that revealed systemic problems with neo-liberal economics. Many writers expected this to mark an end to neoliberalism (Skonkwiler & Berge 2), however, political discourse remained unchanging across the spectrum. Fisher suggests that the ideological expansion of capitalism—the deconstruction, embodiment or colonisation of oppositional discourse—leads to an ideological spectrum completely encompassed by it. At a moment of financial crisis, when it seems that capitalism might collapse, general consensus states that “there is no alternative” (Fisher, Capitalist Realism 8). This poses a problem for discourses that struggle to stretch beyond an ideology encompassing every horizon. In the 2010s, following the crash, many cultural texts explored anti-capitalism—Fisher’s own Capitalist Realism being one—and many fictional texts have explored the absurdities of the post-Fordist system to differing degrees of success. This analysis compares the use of genre in two texts—Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake and Susan Collins’ Catching Fire—and considers British social realism with genres of speculative fiction, and the role of speculation in imagining beyond capitalism.
British social realism is “the default position of a national film culture that seeks to challenge both our perceptions of the socio-political sphere, and of cinema itself” (Forrest 3), with roots in anthropology (Tucker 4-11), documentary filmmaking, and the post-war New Wave (Forrest 1). With a socio-political focus and naturalistic style, the genre is a detailed construction of characters in relation to their social environment (Hallam and Marshment qtd. in Forrest 2). It has a notable presence in contemporary British anti-capitalist discourse, with Ken Loach’s productions of the 1990s being “the most explicit attempts to develop a Marxist analysis of class inequality” (Nwonka 206). In twenty-first-century discourse it reflects Fisher’s observations of the evolution of economics and social policy.
I, Daniel Blake is the story of a disabled man being forced to assess unemployment benefits through a job centre, and his friend Katie, a single mother struggling to feed her children. The film depicts government austerity measures, designed to reduce the reach of welfare through funding cuts, privatisation, and restrictions on benefit eligibility (Gibbons n.p.). These policies were considered inhumane but necessary to rebuild the economy, and the film problematises this by humanising the statistics behind the system. It speaks to Fisher’s “bureaucratic system” (Capitalist Realism, 38) as a mechanism of capitalist ideology; a system that, despite appearing to be a branch of welfare, orchestrates the failure of safety nets through bureaucratic loopholes. The job centre becomes a place for the accumulation of all welfare users, who are stigmatised under the same ‘joblessness’. It appears to be without ideological bias, and workers approach their jobs with a pragmatic ‘realism’. While the system can be dysfunctional, abiding by it yields the best results, and clients should avoid recklessness by bowing their heads. However, dysfunction is itself ideological, with bureaucracy being used to exploit populations while appearing to be a system of welfare. Loopholes become the ultimate function of the job centre, rather than welfare. This exploitation and its effects are the film’s main focus, with a character-driven realism that speaks to genuine hardships within a usually statistic-driven political critique.
The story climaxes with Daniel’s protest, an act of desperation and anger performed by a man who has lost everything under an apolitical bureaucracy. Here, in the face of blatant exploitation, the voices of the job centre, who have repeated their pragmatism throughout the narrative, become themselves irrational, reckless, and ignorant. The scene reveals a contradiction of austerity and of a capitalist ideology itself. How can a government strip away people’s basic rights without consequence, while a man is arrested for writing on a wall? How can a system so confidently promote rationality in the face of such inequality? How can this be the best, most rational option when there is such desperate poverty?
Literary realism is “an investment in scenes of the everyday, an accumulation of detail, and/or the moral encounter of the individual with social forces” (Skonkwiler & Berge 8–9). Social realism, and its scope of political observation, is shaped by this framework. In one sense, the realist narrative is revolutionary, a deconstruction of the pragmatic assumptions that contrast with the realities of contemporary social policy. Capitalist realism is characterised by a naturalising of capitalist ideology, the removal of perception of it as ideological, instead forming a ‘natural’ or ‘objective’ embodiment of the Real (Fisher, Capitalist Realism 16-18). Capitalism comes to be seen a ‘fact’, and business mentalities are applied to all sectors of society. This mindset is deconstructed when confronted with realities that directly contradict the Real. Here, social realism presents highly detailed and factual accounts of the present that contradict a capitalist worldview. In I, Daniel Blake, characters who call for a ‘rational’ approach to economics and welfare seem delusional against scenes of desperate poverty. From Daniel and Katie’s perspectives, austerity measures harm individuals to inhumane and fatal consequences. The factual, almost documentary-style framing enables it to stand up to facades of objectivity. Therefore, the use of naturalism, the detailed depiction of everyday life as a product of socio-political forces, allows I, Daniel Blake to form a sturdy anti-capitalist discourse.
Realism’s commitment to the everyday shows the human cost of theoretical discussions surrounding policy implementation. I, Daniel Blake uses statistics that make up welfare recipients and countless individual stories (Gibbons n.p.), to construct characters that represent cross-sections of these groups, showing details of their lives with careful sympathy. Justifications of an exploitative benefit system rely on maintaining an emotional distance from the harm it creates, but Loach’s storytelling places the most vulnerable at centre stage, prioritising human well-being. Realist conventions therefore take on ideas within the socio-political spectrum and bring them to life beyond theoretical discussion or statistics:
[The genre rejects] artifice and ambiguity by focusing on a direct . . . means of highlighting the perceived ills of . . . political institutions . . . via [an] emotive and authentic protagonist, while consistently maintaining a clear environmental verisimilitude. (Forrest qtd. in Nwonka 208)
I, Daniel Blake directly confronts welfare cuts and opposes a conservative ideology by highlighting the realities of poverty in Britain and consequences of a deliberately manipulative bureaucracy. Realism allows it to be bold and empathetic.
However, reliance on naturalism can also create a narrative that is trapped in the system it critiques. By the end of the film, Daniel is killed by the system he fought against, and it never hears his voice; its cruel bureaucracy succeeds in orchestrating his failure. The film documents injustice but cannot imagine how it is fixed. Daniel’s protest reflects desperation and anger, a feeling that is projected onto the audience. The film triggers deeply felt anger that can fall into hopelessness where the system becomes all-encompassing. Realism in socio-political discourse emits a materialistic commitment to objectivity, depicting accurate, materialistic representations of the present and past, but cannot speculate about the future. Thus, social realism often finds itself trapped in a romanticised past or a constraining, hopeless present. This, Fisher argues, hinders anti-capitalist politics from being emancipatory and keeps it trapped within the Real.
A blog post written by Fisher argues that “realism about capitalist realism can engender only a paralysing sense of the system’s total closure” (Fisher, “Remember” n.p.). The post is a review of the movie adaptation of Suzanne Collin’s novel Catching Fire (2009) – the second instalment of The Hunger Games trilogy, where the protagonist, Katniss, is involved in a conspiracy to bring down the dictatorial Capitol through the quadrennial televised competition, the ‘quarter quell’. Fisher praises it for breaking away from realism to explore the possibility of revolution:
. . . there’s been a palpable sense that the dominant reality system is juddering, that things are starting to give. There’s an awakening from hedonic depressive slumber, and Hunger Games: Catching Fire is not merely in tune with that, it’s amplifying it. (Fisher, “Remember” n.p.)
The review is of the movie, but Fisher identifies the novel’s author as the main contributor to the story’s worldbuilding and narrative construction (“Remember” n.p.). So, a consideration of the novel Catching Fire arguably offers the clearest insight into the story’s anti-capitalist discourse.
The definition of speculative fiction is highly debated and exists alongside other genres such as fantasy, sci-fi, horror and dystopia that all fluidly intertwine with one another and can all be considered speculative on some level (Thomas 4). Catching Fire slips with ease between sci-fi, dystopia and the speculative, thus making it difficult to define. However, the term ‘speculative’ has interesting implications when considering political discourse in fiction. In comparison to realism, it is the ability of Collins’ novel to speculate—to construct a narrative on a theoretical, allegorical landscape—that allows it to delve into imagining beyond capitalism.
One aspect of the novel’s radical politics that Fisher identifies is that “it presupposes that revolution is necessary. The problems are logistical, not ethical” (“Remember”, n.p.). Collins’ narrative enacts the uprising of an oppressed group as a necessary part of the system and its conflicts. The narrative is an embodiment of discourses on the nature of oppression, violence, and rebellion. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon argues that a population that is violently oppressed will inevitably lash out (35–36). The Capitol chronicles that the last uprising constituted “the Dark Days from which the Hunger Games were born” (Collins 194), and that the system ensures stability and prosperity. Collins’ narrative unravels this belief, depicting oppressive systems as the conflict in itself. It forms a rabbit hole of violent oppression leading to rebellion, further push-back from peacekeepers, militant organisation, the eventual destruction of District 12, and the expansion of District 13’s looming threat. Conflict is created by the system’s oppressors leaving rebels with no other choice. Katniss reflects on this attitude change the moment her attempts to reconcile with the President are rejected:
I see the end of hope, the beginning of the destruction of everything I hold dear in this world . . . So you would think that . . . I would be in utter despair. Here’s what’s strange. The main thing I feel is a sense of relief. That I can give up the game. That the question of whether I can succeed has been answered . . . That if desperate times call for desperate measures, that I am free to act as desperately as I wish. (86)
This perspective shifts common conceptions of oppression, suggesting that the more oppressive a system is, the more pressing it becomes for individuals to fight back.
Furthermore, rebelling liberates Katniss from the ideological assumptions that uphold the Capitol. As the plots orchestrated by the rebels become clear, the reader becomes aware that the Capitol’s narrative—that they have stamped out rebellion before and can do so again—presents a false perception of what revolution is. Instead, Collins paints a picture of an uprising that has brewed over the past century, that spilled over into clashes against peacekeepers at certain moments but is a constant, on-going movement. The narrative of The Games deals directly with the incorporation of anti-capitalist aesthetic into the capitalist system as described by Fisher. The Games dramatize the oppression and violent segregation of the Districts as a way for the Capitol to demonstrate its power. However, they become increasingly unstable as contestants use their spotlighted moments to project their own voices, and by the endthe inescapable dystopia has cracked open. Collins’ fiction imagines revolution from the eyes of the oppressed rebel, where there is a notable distinction between the televised inescapable dystopia, and the covert building of resistance from within.
Both Katniss and the reader gradually become aware of this truth until it grants them autonomy. Collins achieves this through worldbuilding which, as an aspect of speculative genres, allows for theoretical and radical thinking to be played out on a stage that considers how the key aspects of human behaviour would look outside one’s own social reality (Hassler-Forest n.p.), thus offering a reconfiguring or re-imagining of possibility. Speculative fiction “has the capacity to envision alternatives that are not reined in by adherence to the factual, and it is hence invested with a particular potential for considerations of ethical and social concerns” (Nate-Obhiambo 382). The word ‘factual’ is perhaps problematic, as an exploration of social concerns requires a theoretical connection to the reader’s reality despite not being naturalistic. Nonetheless, there is a consensus that speculative fiction envisions socio-political discourse in alternative realities, where the possibilities of human behaviour are expanded beyond the present reality. The narrative builds Panem through Katniss’ first-person perspective, which allows for the construction, and de-construction, of conflict between state-apparatus, violence, and rebellion to be viewed through someone who is at once viewer, political and cultural actor, and rebel. Katniss’ perspective is unreliable and restricted, often in conflict with established narratives within media, propaganda, and rebel forces. In this way, Collins’ worldbuilding becomes an allegory for worldbuilding in the real world, where people navigate between ideological realisms, and aesthetics of revolution and propaganda, in order to become informed. Katniss’ character is highly critical in her thinking, so that she can understand the wider impacts of these interactions and think outside pre-existing paradigms. Overall, speculation in Catching Fire maintains a commitment to worldbuilding and the imagined, and these genre conventions allow it to re-imagine political discourse. The reader is given critical tools and perspectives to understand oppressive systems that govern our own social standing and worldview, and new horizons to imagine alternatives.
Catching Fire was part of a trend in dystopian speculative fiction, which staged the revolutionary overthrowing of a dystopia, in the early 2010s. As Dan Hassler-Forest explains, “a remarkable number of recent sci-fi and fantasy texts have offered allegorical reflections of movements like Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter” (110). Exploring these movements in an allegorical manner allows them to be considered outside the constraints of all-encompassing Capitalist Realism, which perhaps explains the reason for this surge in popularity. Through its engagement with abstract ideas and worldbuilding, the conventions of speculative fiction allow a consideration of alternative social systems. In contrast, social realism considers the human elements of social systems and is intertwined with contemporary reality. Its naturalism allows for sociological explorations of the everyday, while it finds itself too engrossed in realism to reject Capitalist Realism. Speculative fiction relates less overtly to the everyday and is often more symbolic than ‘human’, never relating as clearly as social realism to the lives of its audience. But its rejection of naturalism, in order to exist on a more theoretical, more speculative plain, allows it to overcome with ideological monopoly– to genuinely consider the possibility of an alternative.
Elsie Unsworth, ““Is There No Alternative?”: Capitalist Realism and Genre in Contemporary Political Fiction,” Alluvium, Vol. 10, No. 2 (2022). Web 8 August 2022. DOI:https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v10.2.05
About the Author
Elsie Unsworth (they/them) is a graduate of MA Literature and Culture at the University of Salford, Manchester. They have an interest in culture and philosophy in literature, specifically in the context of speculative fiction, fantasy, folk and mythology. Their dissertation and current research focus on 21st century Irish folklore, (post)nationalism, Irish Traveller communities, and feminist and queer folklore. They are currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Salford, and continuing to engage in creative writing in the field of speculative, fantasy and folk. Say hello @ultimatedot on Twitter.
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