“Fear and Misery in Neoliberal Britain”, by Mark Fisher
On the week we publish K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher, we republish this k-punk post “Fear and Misery in Neoliberal Britain”. Originally published in 2010, its “compressed and condensed” experiences of life under capitalist realism will still resonate today.
The passage I’ve pasted below — the introduction to a presentation, which was entitled “‘We’re not all in this together’: Public Space and Antagonism in the Wake of Capitalist Realism” — was intended to be a kind of minimally fictionalised phenomenological tuning-up exercise, to give a predominantly non-UK audience a sense of what it has been like to live in the UK under capitalist realism. Everything here is based on genuine experiences, although some experiences have been compressed and condensed, and the experiences are not necessarily mine.
Now: The swipe card doesn’t work. The machine senses anxiety, you’re sure of it. It knows the card is not yours. You try the card again. Nothing. Same red light. The card isn’t yours, but you should have access to the building. You had to borrow someone else’s card because it is only possible to get swipe cards between the hours of 9 and 1 and you are working at these times.
Someone is behind you. You feel uncomfortable. Will they notice that the card does not belong to you? You try the card again. Again nothing. Red light.
Your phone rings. You struggle to get it out of the bag. By the time you have it, the call has gone through to the answering service. You see that the call has come from another of your employers. A familiar anxiety grips you: what have you done wrong now? But you have no time to worry about that at the moment.
You try the swipe card again. At last, the green light comes on. You’re through the door.
Rushing down the corridor. Which floor were you supposed to be on? You rifle through your bag until you find the documentation. You should be on this floor, but at the other end of the corridor. You walk towards the room number. But suddenly your progress is blocked. There is a no entry sign: an office that cuts the corridor in half and through which there is no access.
It’s a nightmare topology. Every time you seem to get close, another obstacle appears. You will have to go out of the corridor, down the stairs and up to the next set of stairs, facing a number of swipe card-access doors on the way.
By now the five minutes you hoped to have before you start is evaporating rapidly.
By the time you reach the room you were heading for, you are already late. You log-on to the computer. Or you try to. The log-in is rejected. You try again. No luck. Then you remember: you’re trying a log-in from one of the other institutions that you work at. It’s difficult to keep track sometimes. You remember the correct log-in, quickly scan one of your email accounts. See an email from an administrator. Have you filled in your bank details form? Yes, you’ve filled it in, you think. Weeks ago. But of course you can’t be sure — maybe you only thought you had filled it in. Have they lost it? Flash of anxiety: will I not be paid this month? Last year, when you filled in all the same forms that you have to complete again this year, you were not paid for a whole fifty-hour contract, until you pointed out the mistake. Will the same thing happen again?
But there’s no time to worry about this now.
You have a room of seventy students waiting to be taught.
Such is life in the UK’s bloated and over funded public institutions.
Welcome to Liberty City. The busier you are, the less you see.
Ten years ago: the New-Path Institute
The psychiatrist asks you if your mood has improved.
You say no.
The psychiatrist says that the dose needs to be increased.
You don’t respond. You can’t. The drugs you’re taking and the condition you are suffering from give you the cottonhead response time of a zombie. The psychiatrist feels very far away, like you are seeing him through a fish-eye lens.
You don’t need to respond. It’s not about your responses.
Besides, there’s a sneering voice in your head constantly shouting at you.
Of course the drugs won’t work.
Of course you won’t get better.
Because there’s nothing wrong with you.
Just give up.
But that’s easier said than done.
The best you can hope for is a coma.
After the consultation, you return to your bed. Everything feeling very heavy, as if a crushing undersea pressure is bearing down on you. You lie on the bed, absolutely convinced that this is the truth — the raw unvarnished Real. Strangely, that remorseless glacial sense of certainty does not lessen your anxiety or bring you any relief. You cannot rest, even though you are catatonically immobile. Your heart is pounding. Jackhammer thud out of a Poe story. It gets faster and louder until the only thing louder is the voice in your head.
Later, you say to a nurse:
So that’s what the treatment amounts to? Drugging and incarceration.
They nod. In the background, someone is howling.
Now: Rush away to one of the other places you work. You are supposed to photocopy some texts.
But by the time you arrive in the corridor, all the doors are locked. No one there.
This is the second time this has happened. Last time the photocopier wasn’t working.
You should have come earlier today. But there wasn’t time then.
Defeated, but trying to ensure that the two-hour round trip is not a complete waste of time, you go to the library, using the temporary swipe card that you were given because your contract has not been prepared yet. You take some books off the shelf and try to check them out. No dice. Your library record has not yet been prepared.
Can you come back later?
Yes, you can come back later.
On the train home. Claustrophobia-inducing crush. You’re so anxious about having your iPod or your phone stolen that it would almost come as a relief if they were.
Exhausted, still standing up because there is no space to sit, you think about reading the book in your bag. But the temptation of the free paper is too great. Its headlines fix on your tired mind like predators that have eyed a stricken animal. The little oedipal-celebrity narratives hook you in. Everything collapsing into the universal form of the tabloid. Idle chatter subsuming all other news. Politics as a family soap opera. Nothing going on except ambition, intrigue, envy. You’re bored even as you are fascinated.
Six years ago: In the office of the occupational therapist.
You are being asked to prove that you are mentally fit.
Because — as the Human Resources manager kindly pointed out — you have suffered from stress in the past. (The thought flashes through your mind — not that they cared when you were suffering.) But now people are concerned.
The anger that you’ve been showing towards management can only be a sign that you are unwell. A little unbalanced.
Don’t worry. No one is attacking you. We’re all here to help.
You say to the occupational therapist:
If I say management is conspiring against me will that prove I am mad?
Now: Stepping over the vomit, you remember too late: only a fool would go out into a provincial English town centre late in the evening. It’s night of the living dead out here.
Screams that sound like they come from the Dante-damned. And that’s just from the people who are enjoying themselves.
The lurching zombie threat of violence simmering.
Try not to catch anyone’s eye.
When you go by Accident and Emergency, you see all the walking wounded, and some who are not walking. All the casualties of the UK’s many happy hours.
You remember a doctor saying that twenty years ago, the night shift was so boring that the medics would engage in wheelchair races with one another. Not anymore. Not with all the knives, gun crime, fights, alcohol-related accidents, stomach pumps…
And all the superbugs breeding in the wards…
You reach home, switch on the TV. Emollient patrician voices crying crocodile tears. Public services to be massively cut back. 30%, 40%.
A new age of austerity.
Aristocrats and millionaires telling us: we’ve all got to do our bit.
We’re all in this together.