Not long ago, I familiarized myself with the work of the late political theorist and philosopher Mark Fisher. His most well-known and significant work, Capitalist Realism, is a valuable read, first and foremost to gain a proper understanding of its central, eponymous concept.
Capitalist realism, as defined and elaborated on by Mark Fisher, is the common unconscious sense and widespread atmosphere which tells us that any future significantly different from our own in which we have positively advanced from our present political and economic system is effectively impossible. It posits that there is no alternative to capitalism, and that as such, without any sufficiently influential opposition thereto, the forward march of history has effectively ended, with little more to come than the tying up of loose ends and the maintenance and final triumph of Western capitalist hegemony.
Whether or not one favors the triumph of Western capital and its associated institutions in government and culture, one can see easily how the atmosphere and thinking created by capitalist realism can be harmful. If one believes, for example, that a country like the United States is essentially democratic, and that it has been made increasingly so over its lifespan by the struggles of those who have fought to make it so, then the growing inability of the people (by any meaningful definition) to conceive of a significantly different and positive alternative to the present way of things would imply an end or drastic slowing of the continuation of such democratic struggles. The same is doubly true if one believes the present institutions of American democracy to be eroding, as most people seem to in one way or another. For example, if you find yourself aligned with the contemporary American right, you may worry about election fraud so significant that it could steal an election ⸺ whether or not such a phenomenon has actually been proven to exist. If you find yourself anywhere but the right, you may worry about the effects of continued right-wing efforts to suppress the vote, to misinform those who do vote, and so on and so forth. Without the ability of the masses to conceive of a radically different future which not only includes, but bolsters and protects democracy, a government of, by, and for the people is left near helpless against destruction from within.
How then, can we combat capitalist realism in the United States? There is no one answer, and those which exist are hardly means to end on their own, but there is one which comes to mind for me more than any other, which I find particularly compelling, powerful, and constructive towards the advancement and protection of democracy ⸺ growing labor unionism.
As seen in the victory of the Amazon Labor Union on Staten Island, in dozens of Starbucks locations across the country, and more, there seems to be a significant increase in the number of American workers standing in solidarity to secure better wages, safer working conditions, and proper treatment in and out of the workplace. This development has major implications for the status of the American volksgeist. First of all, it represents the real possibility of a break in the decades-long decline in American union membership which has correlated directly with an increased flow of new wealth to the upper echelons of American society. Fisher claims in his book that the cementing of this shift in wealth and economic power beginning in the days of Reagan and Thatcher, coupled with related cultural shifts and the fall of the Soviet Union, are what most ushered in the modern era of capitalist realism. Thus, a reversal from the downward direction of union membership suggests the possible beginning of a break from capitalist realism. In other words, a new birth of workplace democracy could open the minds of the American people to new possibilities for a rebirth of other democracy.
One might counter, of course, that many contemporary American unions (or at least, their members) seem to hold significant bigotries which are inherently incompatible with any meaningful push for democratic advancement in modern America. This is not without truth, and in fact, it is true that many American unions throughout history, as with many American institutions more broadly, can be found to have propagated racism and other elements of reaction. However, I would argue that American labor unionism has done more good than harm for the advancement of the American working people, not only economically, but socially, regardless of race, sex, or creed. Further, there has been much crossover between American labor activism and positive social activism. For instance, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not only a proponent of civil rights, but of labor, lest we forget, for example, that his assassination was preceded by an outpouring of support from him for a strike by sanitation workers in Memphis. Another example which I happened to stumble upon recently is that of the letter by activist and writer Ida B. Wells thanking labor leader, anti-war activist, and Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs for his public denunciation of The Birth of a Nation and his continual advocacy for the proper treatment of Black people in America.
Unionism, by its very nature, is a unifier and a democratic force. Its existence outside the traditional sphere of existing electoral politics allows for the building and maintaining of a democratic force in society independent of those we believe to be eroding ⸺ a force which has the power to inspire new political thought and action not only for the advancement and protection of democracy in the workplace, but in every facet of American life and government. Unionism, then, seems a strong combatant in many arenas, but perhaps unexpectedly, even in the fight against democratic erosion.