“We remain trapped in the twentieth century,” claimed theorist Mark Fisher. “The future has disappeared.” It’s hard to believe that it’s been six years since Fisher’s suicide, at the age of forty-eight, in January 2017, especially since we need his analysis of what ails modern culture more than ever before. Socio-technological processes are accelerating in ways that Fisher predicted in his books Capitalist Realism (2009) and Ghost of My Life (2014), propelling us ever faster into the dehumanized future that he warned us about.
Fisher was part postmodern philosopher, part subculture journalist. Influenced by the postmodern futurologies of Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard, Gilles Deleuze and Pierre-Félix Guattari, Fisher envisaged a future society resembling the worlds of Blade Runner, Akira and the Matrix and Terminator movies: a techno dystopia populated by avatars, cyberpunks and communists and synthetic humans.
“Neoliberal capitalism has gradually but systematically deprived artists of the resources necessary to produce the new,” states Fisher in a 2014 talk:
While twentieth-century culture was seized by recombinatorial delirium, which made it feel like newness was infinitely available, the twenty-first century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion … It doesn’t feel like the twenty-first century has started yet.
Fisher’s great insight was that, in our capitalist societies, as technology advances, our culture deteriorates and we increasingly lose our sense of time and progress, becoming amnesiac consumers stuck in an endlessly recycled and rebooted past.
I’d like to show how Fisher’s predictions about our culture have come true and to engage with the question he left unanswered at his death: what is to be done?
Fisher was immersed in music subculture, which he blogged about under the name K-Punk, championing independent musicians, artists and filmmakers in his search for some remaining spark of creative vitality in what he saw as the rapidly stagnating culture industries of capitalism—a stagnation he exposed in the viral anti-Facebook Facebook group “Boring Dystopia,” to which thousands of people contributed images during its five-month existence online.
He introduced many of us to the sublime post-dubstep music of Burial and the experimental electronic music of The Caretaker: artists whose “gloomy, dystopian soundscapes” seem to come from a post-apocalyptic near future. Fisher encouraged, interviewed and celebrated such artists. (The Caretaker dedicated an album to Fisher’s memory.)
This genre of music inspired Fisher’s theory of hauntology—an expression he took from Jacques Derrida, who uses it in his work Spectres of Marx to describe forms and ideas from the past that haunt the present. For Fisher, this music fills us with regret for the lost futures it represents and is the expression of an era in which we have given up trying to imagine a different way of living. It is music for abandoned nightclubs and late-night buses, fast food chains, empty streets and deserted ballrooms; a soundscape for nocturnal wanderings, music that seems to echo our society’s decay. Fisher writes, “When pop can no longer muster a nihilation of the World, a nihilation of the Possible, then it will only be the ghosts that are worthy of our time.”
When we look at the films, TV shows, books and music of 2023, we can see that Fisher’s claim that our cultural output has entered a state of “frenzied stasis” and cultural stagnation is correct.
In the six years since Fisher’s death, the arts have been dominated by remakes, reboots, sequels, spin-offs and imitations, leaving an ever-shrinking space for genuine creativity and new ideas. As Fisher said, we are immersed in “a sense of repetition, of clotted or blocked time … buried, interred behind a superficial frenzy of newness.” Our culture industries endlessly repackage the hits of the twentieth century; they have all but eliminated creative innovation in music, film and TV, leaving us no option but to consume the derivative, generic productions of mass culture, while corporations spread bland uniformity across the globe. “To be in the twenty-first century,” as Fisher points out, “is to have twentieth-century culture on high-definition screens.”
We cannot imagine a better world than this one, so the future has degenerated into endless cycles of aimless repetition. This makes us ideal targets for techno-consumerism, in which all products have built-in planned obsolescence, leaving us no choice but to buy the same things over and over again. For Fisher, these are the consequences of the globalist neoliberal dream of the end of history. Neoliberal thinker Francis Fukuyama, in his 1992 book of that name, makes a similar prediction: “The end of history will be a very sad time … In the post-historical period, there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.”
As Fisher predicted, we are going nowhere. Fast.
In the first week of November 2022, Taylor Swift achieved total domination of the Billboard 100 top 10 charts, with songs at numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10. The virtual shelves of the top ten contained only one choice: Swift, Swift, Swift, Swift, Swift, Swift, Swift or Swift.
Although many fans were corralled into seeing this as merely a you go, girl moment, a historic threshold had been crossed. The Billboard Chart, which began in 1913, had effectively come to an end. This was less about Swift’s own achievements and more an indication of a new norm: corporate music. Swift’s record company Universal Music Group is the largest music corporation in the world. It has “special agreements” with Disney, Facebook, Instagram, Google, Oculus, Lego, Apple, Mercedes, Bloomingdale’s and Selfridges and operates in more than 60 territories around the world. In December 2021, the artist Drake bagged nine of the Hot 100’s top 10 slots. Drake also signed with Universal in 2022 in the “biggest music deal in history.”
The corporate domination of the music industry that Fisher predicted is now complete and all illusions of a fair playing field or of an audience who vote with their purchasing power are over. Corporate art is now too big to fail. This is a new stage in the monopolisation of culture by global corporations that destroy everything in their shadow.
Fisher warned about the narrowing scope of modern music. In a “frozen time,” he predicted, there would be no room for any new cultural forms to emerge. All the slots would already be taken, leaving only a generic sameness that belies our sense of passing time. The music and film culture of 1975 was radically different to that of 1993, Fisher pointed out, but there is no significant difference between the music of 2003 and that of 2021. As Fisher said, “in recent years, everyday life has sped up as culture has slowed down.”
The free market can no longer be justified by the infinite consumer choice it offers. The days of endless variety are over. In many cultural arenas, you now have little to no choice as to what to consume. And things have become increasingly difficult for aspiring new artists, who cannot even get started on their careers because the creative arena is already completely dominated by corporate behemoths and by the recycled dead forms of the twentieth century.
Swift’s own work is a metaphor for all this: her fashion style is retro “as if she time travelled from the 1950s” and her recent work is saturated with 1970s nostalgia. In 2021, the global pop star also began re-recording and re-releasing her own back catalogue of albums. In the world of corporate mass culture, time has not just slowed down or stopped; it is moving backwards.
Stagnant Film and TV
Fisher’s critique of contemporary music is also deeply relevant to the TV and cinema of the 2020s. The trend of rebooting began a decade ago, but has been gathering momentum since monopolistic corporate mergers reduced the media landscape to six media conglomerates, which own 90% of all content. There are so many reboots today that you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’ve travelled twenty years back in time.
In 2022, there were TV reboots of The Flintstones, The Kids in the Hall, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Frasier, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Fraggle Rock, Fletch, The Munsters, Law and Order, Quantum Leap, Jodie (Daria), Interview with a Vampire, Party Down, The Addams Family (Wednesday) and The Lord of the Rings (The Rings of Power). The following films were also rebooted: Scream, Batman, Death on the Nile, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Lightyear, Salem’s Lot, Beavis and Butthead, Cheaper by the Dozen, Father of the Bride, Matilda, Firestarter, Hellraiser and Pinocchio.
The biggest growth market just now in film and TV is sequels, spin-offs and reboots that can be made using twentieth-century IPs (intellectual properties). The bestselling twentieth-century IPs have all been bought up in bulk by the big corporations, for rebranding purposes. Executives in production companies and corporations openly admit that the first thing they do when looking for show ideas, is to comb the pre-2000 IPs to see what’s left. If you want to work as a scriptwriter today, there’s an 8/10 chance that you will be pitching for work on an IP that originated in the last century.
In 2023, we are promised a new film reboot of Orwell’s 1984, as well as a new TV series adaptation and a “feminist retelling” in novel form, which is already “being courted for screen adaptation.”
Screenrant’s forty “most anticipated films” of 2023 can be broken down into the following categories:
17 – Sequels
8 – Reboots and remakes
4 – Spin-offs
3 – Films based on bestselling games
2 – Films about twentieth-century celebrities
3 – Adaptations of bestselling books
3 – Original screenplays
A mere three out of the forty films are based on “new original material.” Furthermore, the majority of these films are derived from twentieth-century IPs, including a Bee Gees biopic, The Flash, The Marvels, Creed 3, Shazam!, Scream 6, Dune Part 2, Indiana Jones 5, Ghostbusters Afterlife, Legally Blonde 3 and a remake of The Color Purple. There are also a number of movies based on games and toys from the 1980s—Dungeons and Dragons, the Super Mario Brothers, Transformers—and even from the 1950s: Barbie. Even Back to the Future is getting a reboot as a Broadway musical—though perhaps it should be renamed Back to the Past.
The film industry is no longer focused on creating new stories; instead, it’s all about repackaging successful goods to sell them all over again. This is very different from the situation in the 1980s, during which 40–75% of all films were based on “original content.”
Today’s new technologies don’t create new cultural forms; they reproduce older ones. Ironically, there is a pervasive nostalgia for the period before the victory of global capitalism, when creativity still existed. The 70s and 80s are fetishized in the movies Ready Player One, Mandy, Drive and Blade Runner 2049 and in the TV show Stranger Things. Then there are the recent pastiche biopics of Queen and Elton John—Bohemian Rhapsody closely re-enacts footage of the 1985 Live Aid concert—and the movie about Elvis. It’s like living inside a museum.
We have ceased to believe in any alternative to corporate domination, as Fisher predicted in his theory of capitalist realism. The techno-capitalist future will be a kind of Groundhog Day. In 2070, we will probably still be digesting Taylor Swift, Marvel, Star Wars and Diet Coke and no new cultural forms will have emerged in half a century, since the corporate behemoths will have crushed all competition. Cultural amnesia means that we won’t even realize that we’re consuming the same reprocessed products again and again and again. We’re like people trapped in the matrix, living in a simulated reality version of the late twentieth century, endlessly partying like it’s 1999.
As Fisher warned, “Those who can’t remember the past are condemned to have it resold to them forever.”
This process of stagnation has been caused by the rise of IP, as film insiders like Matt Damon and Quentin Tarantino have explained. Hollywood producer Lynda Obst provides a particularly detailed analysis in her book, Sleepless in Hollywood.
According to Obst, from 2008–2012, the home DVD market died (due to the advent of digital) and Hollywood profits cratered. This forced producers and movie studios to cut costs, become risk averse and seek new international markets. The result was that already successful “intellectual properties” became the most attractive low risk investments and promised the highest global returns. Already successful IPs from decades before required very little promotion. Everyone already knows Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, so studios can save millions on marketing and exploit a vast, ready-made global fan base. There is no need to risk market failure trying to get a new story off the ground when you can simply repeat the tried-and-true winning formula that guarantees what—in a term that will be familiar to readers of Philip K. Dick—is now called “product pre-awareness.”
The rush to regenerate already famous IPs for the global market over the last decade also pushed all available investment into huge “tentpole” movies, with budgets of $100 million or more. This has resulted in a situation in which there are only two kinds of movies: “tentpoles and tadpoles,” as Obst calls them—films with budgets of 3 million or 300 million. This has obliterated the chances of selling mid-range movies—the category that contained most of the creative ideas, from the 1970s to the early 2000s. Studios execs no longer pitch stories, Obst says. Instead, they turn up with IP portfolios, which are just as likely to include IPs of famous games and toys as they are of extant movies. The business has turned into a matter of remaking and reselling and since these products are aimed at the widest possible international market and have to cross many language, age and cultural barriers, these films have to be simple, childlike and full of thrills and special effects, with very little dialogue or psychological complexity: a homogenized international mass product catering to one billion new Chinese and Indian consumers. Since narrative traditions are different in the east, western storytelling traditions such as the three-act structure have also come to be less important. These cultural commodities also have to be franchisable. There can be no more one-off movies. Obst diagnoses this cultural sickness as “sequelitis.”
Digital streaming platforms also obliterated the indie cinema and DVD market—causing the entire sector that gave us so many edgy, risky, creative films from the 1980s and 90s and launched the careers of such talented filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino, Hal Hartley, Todd Solondz, Gus Van Sant, Robert Rodriguez and Jim Jarmusch—to vanish overnight.
This is a far cry from the digital utopianism that was forecast by Silicon Valley gurus like Kevin Kelly and Seth Godin back in the early 2000s. New digital technologies and websites like Kindle and YouTube were supposed to create an egalitarian era in which “we are all artists now.” Cheap mass manufactured hi-res cameras, audio recording, editing software and new digital platforms were supposed to lead to a golden age of democratisation, sharing and creativity, in which anyone could become a filmmaker or musician. The actual outcome has been multinational corporate domination of the film and music industries.
According to howchoo, the following TV show IPs are going to be rebooted with new actors and stylistic makeovers over the next few years: Ally McBeal, Battlestar Galactica, Conan the Barbarian, Criminal Minds, Cowboy Bebop, CSI, Dexter, The Fairly OddParents, The Flintstones, Gossip Girl, Grease, Little House on the Prairie, The Mighty Ducks, Rugrats, Sex and the City, True Blood and The Wonder Years.
Nostalgic repetition of the familiar forms of the last century is inevitable, Fisher warned, when we can no longer picture a different future. As he predicted, we are trapped in an endless déjà-vu loop of mechanical repetition, forced to be constantly re-entertained, re-distracted.
When was the last genuine, truly original, grassroots subculture? Fisher asked. He believed that artistic innovation in music stopped being economically viable between 2008 and 2012—a timing that coincides with Obst’s analysis of what happened to cinema. Global techno-capital kills off new cultural forms; the corpses of twentieth-century culture are then reanimated and re-devoured so that techno-capital can grow.
Every part of our lives is already mediated by Big Tech. It has prised its way into communities and pushed people apart, making them dependent on the mediation of smartphones, Zoom and social media for human contact. Technological “progress” has broken up our normal patterns of work and belonging; it has interceded between family members and intervened in relationships and is now enticing people to lead separate, atomized lives, in which all social, amorous, sexual and financial interactions are mediated by technology. From Fiverr to PayPal, Tinder, Deliveroo, Fitbit and Alexa—employment, finance, romance, nourishment, fitness, entertainment and social life are now all processed through the data-gathering algorithms of AI smart tech that harvest our “personalised” digital histories. Our economic situations and investments; the films, TV shows and books we consume; and even food delivery, healthcare, insurance, retail and HR choices are now being shaped by predictive algorithms. Predictive analytics only gathers data on what is already successful—so again, they encourage us to copy past patterns. Ask an AI algorithm what culture should be created, and it will tell you: Fast and Furious 11, Avatar 4, Indiana Jones 7, reboots of all successful past TV shows and re-recordings of all already popular songs.
These technologies are rapidly expanding and becoming interconnected: the Internet of Things, Social Credit systems, UBI, Central Bank Digital Currency and digital ID surveillance are all being rolled out with apparently unstoppable momentum. A hybrid existence that is half Brave New World and half The Matrix might be less than a decade away.
And what are the psychological consequences of living within this state of “frenzied stasis,” in which our technologies are force-feeding us the same reheated content with accelerating frequency? As Fisher diagnoses, this creates ennui and aimlessness: “the boring is everywhere. Boredom consumes our being; we feel we will never escape it.” This leads to depression on a society-wide scale.
What Is to be Done?
Fisher’s thought was influenced by the political philosophy of accelerationism. In the 1990s, he was a co-founder of Warwick University’s innovative and controversial Cybernetic Culture Research Unit. The CCRU also spat out the agitated accelerationist writings of Sadie Plant and Nick Land. Though they were both inspired by the French poststructuralist Gilles Deleuze, their frenzied futurology fired Land and Plant off into different orbits: transhumanist cyberfeminism and the neoreactionary NRx movement respectively.
Left accelerationism has its precedents in Marx and Trotsky; it is a historically deterministic philosophy, a belief that we are fastened to the teleological train of progress and the train cannot stop, only accelerate. The accelerationist is against slamming on the brakes to avoid disaster. One school of left accelerationism believes that we must speed towards the climactic destruction of capitalism and only then, after that apocalypse, can a socialist utopia be built upon the ruins. This is the Trotskyite and Bolshevik strategy of making things worse in the short term in order to (hopefully) improve them in the long term. (More recently, far left accelerationists voted for Trump, as an agent of chaos who would destroy the status quo, just as right-wing accelerationists voted for the US Democrats—in the belief that their commitment to identity politics would increase racial conflict and lead to civil war.)
The other type of left accelerationist wants us to speed towards a technological future that will free mankind from the shackles of the economy and the values of past, in something resembling a socialist AI singularity. This thinking is epitomised by Aaron Bastani’s concept of “fully automated luxury communism.”
Fisher’s own leftist accelerationism took a more modest form and his statements about it were hedged about with disclaimers. He left the question of what is to be done tragically unanswered at his death, but he did leave us a couple of hints: in the lecture notes for his 2016 course on “post-capitalist desire” (published by Repeater Books in 2020) and in the unfinished short introduction to an unwritten book called Acid Communism.
For Fisher, Communism meant little more than an alternative to capitalism. The book’s title was perhaps poorly chosen, given the ideology’s history and baggage, but Fisher claimed that it signalled an attempt at “recapturing the avant-garde and the psychedelic in order to imagine new futures”—a project that drew inspiration from the fusion of drug culture, non-conformism and radical politics in the 1960s and 70s, from Timothy Leary, William Burroughs and Brion Gysin. It took the culture of the hippies, yippies, left-wing radicals and civil rights activists of a time before the victory of neoliberalism as a point of departure, a place to refuel and kickstart history again, a way to escape from the “atemporality” our culture is stuck in.
Unlike the hippies and radicals of the 60s and 70s, Fisher was not an idealist. He did not believe that political change can emanate from some non-alienated, untainted ideal. For Fisher, there is no anarchist, primitivist golden age or garden beyond or before capitalism. Instead, Fisher thought, the alternative to capitalism has to emerge from within capitalism as it is now: “We have to start from a full immersion in capitalism.”
Fisher never completed the book Acid Communism or explained how this phenomenon could emerge. His final essay comes uncomfortably close to sixties revivalism and to the cultural nostalgia of which he was otherwise so critical.
Fisher believed that—alongside psychedelics—the new technologies of VR and the metaverse could lead to new forms of consciousness and collective experience. He also thought that technological progress should lead to Universal Basic Income, which would free humans from meaningless toil, liberating them to rediscover their creativity. Perhaps Fisher sensed that he was clutching at straws.
Five years after his death, the World Economic Forum began predicting exactly the same techno future as Fisher had envisaged, but with much more sinister implications: in their vision, universal basic income would compensate for the mass unemployment caused by advances in technology, and drugs and games would be used not to expand personal awareness, but to pacify a frustrated, unemployed populace.
As futurologist Yuval Noah Harari, adviser to Klaus Schwab (chairman of the World Economic Forum) said in an interview with Chris Anderson, the CEO of TED, “We just don’t need the vast majority of the population in the early twenty-first century, given that modern technologies render human labour economically and militarily redundant.” According to Harari, the rise of artificial intelligence will give rise to billions of unemployable people: a “useless class” of humans that social engineers will have to “deal with.”
At the 2022 WEF, Harari predicted:
The biggest question maybe in economics and politics in the coming decades will be what to do with all these useless people … The problem is more boredom, what to do with them and how will they find some sense of meaning in life when they are basically meaningless, worthless. My best guess at present is a combination of drugs and computer games.
It is alarming to find that both Fisher and his ideological nemesis envisaged the same future: with vast swathes of the population unemployed, receiving UBI and immersed in VR and drugs. Fisher’s tenuous optimism that such a situation might open up the possibility of new, radical futures may be wishful thinking. It could equally lead to the rise of the pod person: an unemployed addict, aimlessly and endlessly consuming reboots, remakes and sequels—trapped in the same unproductive day forever, fed free food, drugs and media to lull him into an amnesiac stupor, so that, in his frustration at his own uselessness, he never turns threatening or disruptive.
Fisher’s optimistic projections for the future are also thrown into question by his suicide. It is not clear that he took his life as a direct result of his theories, but we should bear in mind that Fisher often drew connections between his own struggles with severe depression and the growing malaise of society as a whole. “The pandemic of mental anguish that afflicts our time cannot be properly understood or healed,” he writes, “if viewed as a private problem suffered by damaged individuals.”
Fisher’s critique without resolution, his diagnosis without cure and his faintly sketched optimism, haunt us as we accelerate into the dark technological future that he predicted. He is sorely missed. We need minds like Fisher’s more than ever. We need people like Fisher who have the courage to face the worst and to search for a path out of the labyrinth.
Because we, the useless people, are angry and we are done with watching our future become little more than a corporate reboot of the past.
I enjoyed this piece. I have also written at length on Mark Fisher and also recommend the philosopher Byung-Chul Han who continues to contemplate the fate of postmodern subjectivities living in an “infocracy.” I actually tried to answer the question of how civilization escapes from its self-created prison in my 2016 book, How Soon Is Now. I agree with Fisher and Harrari that a UBI is needed. Essentially, that already means a kind of socialism / communism, as people are no longer forced to take horrible jobs to survive. That would change the whole compensation mechanism of society. At the same time, we are confronting ecological Armageddon and most of the work that needs to be done can’t be accomplished under Capitalism and its debt structures. For example, converting rooftops to urban gardens, insulating old buildings to cut down on energy use, creating a sharing / cooperative society to reduce… Read more »