Update 31 May, 2012: Some readers, even after braving through the many photos and philosophese, have asked me: “Just what exactly is the ideology or goal of ‘capitalist realism’?” I think what I’m trying to say is simply this: if socialist realism celebrated and promoted the mechanization of humanity, then capitalist realism celebrates and promotes the marketization of humanity. Moreover, both art forms have strong semiotics of the future and of power. However, where socialist realism was explicit in its totalitarian drive (at least, it’s obvious in retrospection), capitalist realism still purports to be liberalist (in the sense that people are allowed to be whoever they want to be “in private”, although what exactly that means, much less the boundaries of the private, is uncertain).
Although this is clearly a critical photo-essay, it’s also, perhaps paradoxically, supposed to be appreciative: contrary to opinions currently in vogue about the aesthetic “superficiality” and psychological “blandness” of either communist or capitalist architecture, the art form is actually quite intelligent, provocative, and in its own way, rather sublime. That’s not to say that it’s morally good; rather, that’s to say it shouldn’t be blithely dismissed or knee-jerkingly condemned.
This post could be alternatively entitled, “How I learned to stop grumbling and love corporate-capitalistic architecture.” As a young boy, I would sometimes visit my father’s stock brokerage firm in 650 Fifth Avenue. I couldn’t decide whether its granite modernist facade was drab, imposing, and soulless, or somehow futuristic, even graceful and attractive. I think in general that has characterized my feelings about most post-Sixties corporate/financial office architecture — until yesterday as I wandered Hammersmith and the City of London for a few hours. I found myself taken in by some kind of obscure metaphysical charm, even sublimity. And then I realized: this stuff’s not at all dissimilar Soviet socialist realism. In fact, I’d dare even call it capitalist realism.
Alas, although the term occurred to me as if out of the aether and I thought I was rather witty, it turns out that I’ve been pipped at the post by Mark Fisher, who has written a book entitled, Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? It appears to be a very thorough treatment of the concept. The product description reads:
“After 1989, capitalism has successfully presented itself as the only realistic political-economic system — a situation that the bank crisis of 2008, far from ending, actually compounded. The book analyses the development and principal features of this capitalist realism as a lived ideological framework. Using examples from politics, films, fiction, work and education, it argues that capitalist realism colours all areas of contemporary experience. But it will also show that, because of a number of inconsistencies and glitches internal to the capitalist reality program capitalism in fact is anything but realistic.”
What’s at stake here is, of course, the notion of “realism”. The principle of capitalist realism’s analogue, socialist realism, to quote Professor Wikipedia,
“… was to elevate the common worker, whether factory or agricultural, by presenting his life, work, and recreation as admirable. In other words, its goal was to educate the people in the goals and meaning of communism. The ultimate aim was to create what Lenin called ‘an entirely new type of human being': New Soviet Man [новый советский человек or homo sovieticus]. Stalin described the practitioners of socialist realism as ‘engineers of souls’.”
“Realism”, then, is a deceptive term, for although the form of the artwork had to be figurative, the artist could not, however, portray life just as he saw it. Rather, everything and anything that might reflect poorly upon communism or otherwise distract from its transformative, indeed, transfigurative agenda had to be omitted.
“All characters were poured into a heroic mold, sometimes termed heroic realism. This reflected a call for heroic and romantic art, which reflected the ideal rather than the realistic. Art was filled with health and happiness; paintings teemed with busy industrial and agricultural scenes, and sculptures depicted workers, sentries, and schoolchildren.”
Compare these two sculptures from the City of London to two in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (which to my knowledge are actually post-Soviet but nonetheless conform very closely to the Soviet-era style). The first are of two legendary men wrestling/carrying horses (actually, a pegasus in the first); the second, of hero-leaders, King Edward and Manas, respectively.
In terms of architecture, for me, it’s a bit trickier to tease out the subtle ideological tints and distinctions since for the moment I’m still very much an amateur aesthetician. Nevertheless, I’ll give it a try:
For many people, Stalinist Gothic or socialist classicist is the socialist realist architectural style par excellence, but as any stroll down Chui and Moskovska in Bishkek or Karl Marx and Stalin Allees in Berlin shall show, there are many different iterations with many different principles at work, from an all-over-the-place experimentalism in the Lenin era to mass producability in the Kruschev era to mass stagflation in the Breznhev era to what I’ve sometimes nicknamed “Soviet bourgeois” or “Soviet chic” in the Gorbachev era. Nevertheless, there is some kind of underlying ideological unity, at least an attitude, namely, to transform space, both human and natural, especially human, outer and inner. Of course, such an attitude was not original to the Soviets (odd as this may sound at first, it was presaged by Baroque, especially Roman Catholic and Orthodox, some centuries before), but it took on a particular totalizing, all-encompassing tone, with a heavy telos at work, i.e., mechanization and futurization.
It’s a big trickier to diagnose what’s at stake in capitalist realism. It also has a totalizing tone, but somehow liberal at the same time, in a Hobbesian sense, of outward conformity that allows for inward or out-of-sight, out-of-the-way plurality — in other words, it doesn’t matter what one does and desires “privately” (whatever private is in this context) so long as they do their job well, i.e., grease the wheels of commerce. The untenability of this position notwithstanding, the ideology at least purports not only to not want to invade one’s innerspace, but it often claims that by allowing a certain degree of freedom and idiosyncrasy, the system as a whole can become stronger. After all, the heroes of capitalist realism, unlike the heroes of socialist realism, are the rogues, the mavericks, the outliers, the individuals.
Nevertheless, both styles are drawn to the monumental — whether the monumentalism of collectivity or individuality — as demonstrated by these two strikingly similar buildings, the first an apartment complex from Stalin Allee and the second an office building from Bishopgate (which, ironically, houses the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, which is heavily engaged in the former Soviet world):
As for the origins of capitalist realism, I don’t know what Fisher says in terms of how and why the aesthetic developed since I obviously only just discovered the book (here’s a hint if anyone reading this would like to buy me a present!) Yet, for a while now, I’ve sensed the attitudinal convergence, or perhaps more accurately, the common psychological roots of capitalism and communism.
On the one hand, the convergence is, well, rather Hegelian: a synthesis (aufheben) of opponents, how two entities or forces can fight each other so much, only to end up becoming one another. We see the Former Soviet Union transformed into spoofs of Western liberal-democracy, and the Western liberal-democracies turned into spoofs of communist societies. I realize that just saying that isn’t sufficient, but I don’t want to focus too much upon this right now, although I could rant Chomsky-style about the Western intelligence-corporate complex (cf. the military-industrial complex about which Eisenhower warned us) and corporate totalitarianism. As my much more Left-wing friends know, I’m really ambivalent about Chomsky. It’s been difficult for me to pin down precisely why. He seems cycloptically and unfairly fixated upon the United States (perhaps ironic of me to say so, since I spend so much of my time criticizing my homeland too, but I like to think the tone is different: frustration and disappointment, not hatred), and perhaps because I’m the child of “corporate totalitarianism” and the brother to the “corporate-industrial complex”, I also know that, as subcultures, they are actually quite complex and not so villaninous, just very misguided, even if their actions can be, and often are, heinous.
On the other hand, the sheer power of finance and industry, as two embodiments of autonomous-instrumental human reason, are old themes in Modern architecture. In Rockefeller Center, we see two examples of this: the William Blake motif gracing the entrance of the General Electric Building and, of course, the financial Atlas carrying the world upon his shoulders. In this respect, insofar that finance and industry share at their core a kind of scientism, then, in fact, capitalism and communism have always been shadow-brothers to each other, a Jacob and Esau, if not even a Cain and Abel (and in 1992, Cain slew Abel).
What follows here are some initial considerations regarding this aesthetic — its redeeming qualities, and also what makes it so terrible and awful, or more precisely, terror-izing and awe-full.
Zen and Noah
If socialist realism was supposed to transform the human terrain, both inward and outward, into a new mechanistic-futuristic ideal of humanity, what exactly has capitalist realism been striving to do? It seems that it some kind of digital-futuristic ideal. The weird thing is, whereas socialist realism was productive, i.e., homo faber, humanity as maker and tool-user, in capitalist realism, we become homo capitalus or homo financus: humanity not even as trader, but as money, as exchanged and invested, resource and that for which the resource is spent.
Just as mechanization required a change of consciousness, so does capitalization. The 1980s seems to me to have been a high point in this respect, or at least, a very interesting moment in the aesthetic, for there appears a pronounced emulation of certain Zen (Buddhism) and Chado (Tea Ceremony) principles with respect to gardening, space, and texture, connecting meditation and mental-spiritual clarity to deal-making and investment. The theme is really noticeable in London at the Novotel hotel in Hammersmith.
The heroic “uplift” often experienced when viewing socialist realist works of art can be described as spiritual, even as the manifestation of a full-fledged civil religion. Sometimes this could take a strange turn in the old Soviet Union, as many travellers who’ve stumbled upon bizarre flying saucer-like buildings and other unidentified architectural objects can attest. The same uplift is at work in capitalist realism, and can also get a bit deranged or mystifying. A fascinating example in the Hammersmith area is the office building called “The Ark”:
The name indicates that the building’s designers had in mind the Biblical tale of Noah, evidently while his ship was still in its ancient Mesopatamian dry dock:
What exactly is the concept at work here: safely ferrying investment through the deluge wrought by the wrath of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand, the pantheistic homo deus or deo homus of laissez faire liberal Modernity.
Mathemesis and Nature
The later twentieth century in general exhibited a fascination with concrete, marble and symmetry. Capitalist realism embodied this fascination, in fact, promoted it, since concrete, as a supremely malleable yet stable building material, embodied the notion of utility that is often at the core of finance.
As we move toward the fin de siècle and enter the new century, a shift occurs in materials and concentration, away from concrete symmetry and increasingly toward glass, plasticity, geometry, and an interest in integrating sharp edges with curvature and making active use of sunlight. This is especially the case when one explores the banking cluster in Bishopgate and Exchange Square.
Interestingly, amidst this mathemesis, nature can either serve as ornamentation…
… or as muse and partner:
Frankly, I much prefer this latter form of capitalist realism. Odd as this may sound, there’s something more humble and humane about it, indeed, a feeling that finance need not be about conquest, but transformation as cooperation, in cooperation, the calculations of mutuality. This points toward the positive, even charitable side of what it means to “invest”: to give of oneself for the fruition of another.
Ornamental barbed wire
Inevitably, however, “investment” can also be possessive. As with any ideologically-driven aesthetic, power is a theme, typically its projection. Scale is not the only way this can be done; as the Baroque period shows, ornamentation is also key. In capitalist realism, I was struck by the aestheticization of barbed wire, transformed from something mundane and practical into something ornamental, yet retaining its function:
Yet, what exactly is that function: protecting private property or, paradoxically, exerting secrecy? Indeed, where is the line between the proprietary, the private, and the secret? I was really struck by this question when considering the the Royal Bank of Scotland building, which practically screams its Nietzschean will toward power as domination. Similar again to the uplift of socialist realist heroism, capitalist realism can also express the ascendence of the banker…
… but like many forms of mysticism, there’s also a pronounced secrecy and closedness: I was barred by a security guard from taking a photograph of the lobby, which, by the way, had an elaborate system of security checks and automatic gates. Like a neophyte in the ancient Ismāʿīli cult of the Assasins, the smartly dressed guard had no idea why I wasn’t allowed to take photographs, just that it was forbidden. Incidentally, my colleague Ollie Dams and I had the same experience in Karaganda and Astana in Kazakhstan when we wanted to take photos of the new malls in those cities.
What is the interconnection between property, privacy, secrecy, domination, and the mystical, indeed, the tomemistic and sacred? Whatever it is, it seems intimately connected with the power to shape minds and souls as much as bodies, i.e., propaganda, and capitalist realism in this respect is precisely like its shadow-brother, even if its marketing techniques are far more subtler:
I’m struck by the conceptual complexity of this poster. It’s by Blackberry, the private communication tool that has contributed to new forms of mass communication, and yes, mass surveillance, prompting the recent splurge of Assangian samizdat (самизда́т). It associates the instinctive with the private and the individual; what, then, would the be “herd”, particularly if, as we can safely presume, the majority of those responding to this advertisement — the financial class — are probably using the very same brand? And most of all, it is, in essence, capitalism as a system ordering the viewer to be “free-thinking” — paradoxical at best, dishonest at worst.
But, of course, these are well-known criticisms. My point here has been to show something of the thinking and strength of this aesthetic — indeed, more of a meta-aesthetic, since like socialist realism, which as a category tends to be co-extensive with all Soviet artistic expression regardless of specificities, many different Western corporate-capitalist artistic expressions fall under its rubric. And, you know what? Having now taken the time to actually ponder it, capitalist realism is beautiful in some way, even sublime. As Eugene Ionesco once pointed out about fascist fashion in his play “Rhinocéros”, how long can one be dazzled by this stuff before one is taken in by it?
Rusting from within
Having now been properly dazzled, I’m left wondering: whither the future of capitalist realism, indeed, capitalism? Clearly, the system underlying is profoundly resilient, much more so than communism, probably because of the liberalism and Invisible Hand at work within it, i.e., its multi-tiered decentralization. There is, of course, a good argument to be made that corporate central planning exists, particularly in neo-patrimonial societies, yet nevertheless, the Free Market is much more open and dynamic than what existed in the Soviet Union — in fact, one can argue, as I hinted above, that corporate power, even corporate totalitarianism, depends upon a deep degree of pluralism rather than conformity, i.e., to do the work for it in terms of finding new markets, new methods, and co-opting malcontents.
According to Professor Wikipedia, Mark Fisher proposes that within a capitalist framework,
“…there is no space to conceive of alternative forms of social structures. He proposes that the 2008 financial crisis compounded this position; rather than seeking alternates to the exiting model we look for modifications within the system. The crash confirmed within the populace the necessity of capitalism rather than shake it loose from its foundations.
‘Capitalist realism as I understand it cannot be confined to art or to the quasi-propagandistic way in which advertising functions. It is more like a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.'”
And yet, just like its now-dead shadow-brother, capitalism is also rusting from within, and it’s in ever-more need of new proletariats to maintain and sustain it, as any subway ride to the outer burroughs of Manhattan and the outer zones of London shall show. However, how long humanity shall supply proletarians, and with what we shall replace capitalism when we are finally done with the system, is anyone’s guess.