Capitalist Realism and the Law of Reversed Effort
Capitalist realism is the fatalistic belief that the contemporary, industrialized and property-centered society that we currently occupy is the only possible way to manage the world. The concept was brought to prominence in 2009 by author and philosopher Mark Fischer but is also present in the writings of other anti-capitalist thinkers such as Slavoj Zizek and David Graeber. Fischer proposes that capitalist realism is the predominant mythology of the post-Soviet world and that it has subverted any political question as to the necessity of capitalist production (Fischer, 2009, p- 17). Part of this mythology is that the Soviet Union and associated communist regimes had collapsed due to their own inherent resistance to human nature and the iron laws of economics. Humans, capitalist realism argues, by their very nature tend toward the accumulation of property, and the only way to satisfy this predisposition without violence is through an open market of exchange. All other methods of arranging human society are counter to human nature and economic law and are thus materially impossible to implement. All remaining problems in human relations are then cast as problems with the efficiency of the market (Fischer, 2009, pp- 16-17). The real, living effect of this mythology is the marketization of essential services such as health and education, the privatization of utilities such as banks, water and power infrastructure, and even the looming existential threat of ecological breakdown is recast as a need for “greener markets.” The error in this manner of thinking was clearly identified by Watts prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall and is merely a repetition of Stalinist “dialectical materialism” with the premise of private property reversed. As Watts would note, the primary political systems of the twentieth century were both preoccupied with attempting to arrest the fluctuations of a living world and fixate it in the permanence of social order. In the communist regime, an anxious and alienated worker-comrade is taken into re-education in order to bring them closer to the revolution. In the capitalist-realist regime, the anxious and alienated consumer-citizen is referred to a competitive market of mental health services. In both cases, the encounter of a contradiction between the world and the myth is resolved in terms of protecting the integrity of the myth.
The more we seek to secure the permanence of the market, the more fragile it becomes and the more frequent are its crashes. The more we try to enforce the control of property relations, on the personal or national level, the closer we come to conflict. The insatiable work ethic of capitalism resulting in the violent self-consumption of nature and society is a direct demonstration, on a terrifying and global scale, of the effect Watts called “the law of reversed effort” or the “backwards law” (Watts, 1951/2011, p. 10). The law of reversed effort is a principle that Watts identifies as the outcome of our irrational attempts to make the transcendent and transient aspects of our world into eternal immanence. The theme is prominent in his writings but originates in some of the earliest philosophical cultures. The Tao Te Ching contains discussion how this effect is immediate even to the process of naming the things we propose to act upon:
Thus ‘presence’ and ‘absence’ mutually sprout
‘Hard' and ‘Easy’ mutually inform
‘Long’ and ‘Short’ are mutually gauged
‘High’ and ‘Low’ mutually incline
‘Sound’ and ‘Tone’ mutually blend
‘Before’ and ‘After’ mutually follow on.
Using this: sages don’t act on constructs in addressing affairs.
(Laozi, 2009, p. 38)
The Tao Te Ching contains little, if anything, on living a good life or being a good person. It is rather a powerful critique on the contradictory outcomes of attempting to build permanent constructs or traditions against the background of an enigmatic and ever-changing universe. We might say here that “security” and “anxiety” mutually emerge. The ontology of both existentialism and consumer identity involves these metaphysical mutualisms. The self-division or two mindedness, which arises from immersion within a divided metaphysical construct, transforms anxiety from a momentary experience into an ongoing one. The consumer lives constantly between the constructs of desire and satisfaction, and the Sartrean between the constructs of determinism and authenticity. But only the unsatisfied can pursue satisfaction, and only the inauthentic can pursue authenticity. Each moment, each attempt, leaves an open future in which one must reaffirm the commitment and re-engage the pursuit. The only escape from this cyclical trap is to cease to regard these descriptive categories as mutually exclusive concepts and begin to regard them as mutually informing experiences. The sage, says Laozi, does not act on constructs.
The flight to the future is one of the key instigators of our anxious world and all its apparent contradictions. The threat of tomorrow and the decay of the present into the past alarms the mind and spurs it to action. But if we act before understanding, we merely walk further into the darkness; that is, we first need to understand the world as it is, rather than the world as our mythologies would like it to be. What we have not understood is that the conquest of nature that we have pursued in the name of civilized security is in fact a campaign of sterilization. To want to be separate from the flow and flux of life is to want to be separate from life itself. A world without death is not a world of eternal life, but a world of silence and emptiness. This is the world we are hurtling toward as we fill the oceans with bio-persistent chemicals and burn the earth for reliable, dispatchable energy. What is needed now, more than ever in human history, is that we stop and think. Ending our frenetic activity of supporting the stillness of civilization will not cause the earth to stop turning or the sky to fall and yet, as Zizek has commented, it appears easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. The myth will outlast the earth (Fischer, 2009, p- 2). It seems that we may actually pursue the accumulation of property and capital until all that property is burned and nothing remains but the balance sheets, for the absurd reason that there’s no environmentally sustainable alternative to keeping the current pace of economic growth. However practical our means of expanding economies, their success is bringing us to the contradictory conclusion of declining living standards. We have attempted to secure the world by consuming it, and likewise in laboring to secure our lives, we merely expend them. The impetus to action even w-hen no action is needed is in itself the same problem as performing the wrong action when another action is needed. Our endless industrial activity is akin to a kind of hyperventilation in that it is a panic response which if maintained too long will harm the organism.