The Culture of Nostalgia and Ceaseless Commodification. By Vaughn MitchellRead Now
Mark Fisher three years before his suicide in 2017
Ask anyone what historical event occurred in 1989 and 1991 and they would say the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Sure, these events in succession did mark the closure of the Cold War, but more nefarious and undetected at the time was the emergence of accepting capitalism and liberal democracy as the dominant economic and political worldview. Now that all identified socialist projects had been successfully thwarted, a new path was paved for capitalism to dominate the imaginations of the subconscious and to direct the strictly reformist actions of the conscious. A lasting cultural impact has problematically occurred from neoliberalism’s triumph, namely the pervasive sentiment that nothing ever feels new.
The feeling that nothing is new, frankly, is nothing new. The late political theorist, philosopher, and former University of London professor Mark Fisher wrote on the notion that the ideological victory of neoliberalism after the Cold War has materialized in a tendency to either reiterate or desacralize all cultural happenings. All popular trends, media, shows, music, and products are merely a reconstruction of what the world has already seen, and Margaret Thatcher’s belief that “there is no alternative” only adds fuel to the fire.
In Capitalist Realism, one of his final works before his suicide, Mark Fisher explores the dominating and subliminal belief that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. He constructs his thesis on top of Francis Fukayama’s “The End of History” theory, which posits that liberal democracy is the pinnacle of economic and political development. As a cultural theorist, Mark Fisher adds another perspective that analyzes how the alleged climax of history results in either fruitless cultural development at best or the continued degradation of culture at worst.
And the causes of this developmental-stunt or mere debasement result primarily from late-stage capitalism’s propensity to assign all cultural relics a monetary value, i.e. commodification. The luxury thrift stores could not profit without the revitalization and obsession with thrift culture. Nike capitalized on the profitability of their newly-released “Dunk Low Jackie Robinson” that intended to celebrate the legacy of the beloved ballplayer. Netflix could only stay afloat after releasing their 4th volume of Stranger Things, the most popular show on the platform that lends popularity to their romanticism of the 80’s.
Although they remain relatively scattered and unrelated examples, the common denominator lies in the commodification or fetishization of some cultural or historical relic. The recent obsession with vintage clothing felt all throughout younger generations is but the archetypal style for any American highschooler. The new Dunk Low Jackie Robinson’s intended to pay homage to the first African American baseball player are but a reiteration of history that exist contemporarily in commodity form. The idolization of the 80’s as exemplified by Stranger Things with eccentric outfits and repetitive blares of Kate Bush’s “Running Up that Hill”, though a modern series, are but the most appropriate demonstration of the widely-held sentiment that nothing ever feels new simply because it was designed to represent the old.
The Duffer brothers’ Stranger Things best encapsulates this “culture of nostalgia”. Its ability to remain Netflix’s most popular English-speaking show with over 1.26 billion hours watched inherently suggests that the viewership is both impressed and wildly nostalgic with an accurate depiction of the 80’s.
Additionally, this culture of nostalgia lingers indefinitely as a self-bolstering ideology; if the common sentiment held by the people under a liberal democracy living in parallel with the climax of history, the feeling that nothing can be new restricts the imaginations of what could be. Consequently, as leftists, it is critical to question the validity of historical materialism now more than ever.
Of course, any leftist can understand that Marx theorized that the driving force of change in political economy were material conditions that necessitated transformative efforts to be made. However, Fisher’s Capitalist Realism poses new questions after the alleged triumph of liberal democracy, the most salient of which begging if we can even progress beyond neoliberal hegemony.
As destructive as it is, capitalist realism engenders a societal malaise that perpetuates any new trend, movie, show, music, or product – all cultural happenings – to be predicated on mimicry of the past with specific intent of profit. Such reiterations of previous cultural developments are, again, a product of the cyclic belief that nothing ever feels new. Fisher notes in Capitalist Realism that “capitalism brings with it a massive desacralization of culture…Capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable…[it] had seeped into the very unconscious…”. In essence, a rampant commodification and branding of what is already heard-of precludes the ability to imagine a society consisting of anything culturally unheard-of.
The cling to nostalgia is by no means a coincidence; rather, it remains and will continue to remain the ideological haven to those disillusioned with the undersupply of anything culturally valuable brought by modern capital. As Fisher puts it in Capitalist Realism, capital exists as “a strange hybrid of the ultra-modern and the archaic.” It exists as a disorganized medley that tries to reconcile the ever-changing times with the historical significance of some element of the past. Precisely so, vintage shops reap immense profits from selling their old-fashioned clothing articles that appeal to a population unsure of how to style with no alternatives ever offered to them. In the same manner, Nike can get away with their evolving shoebuilding practices that coincide with the commodification of Jackie Robinson’s contribution to the MLB that is disguised as a “commemoration”. All the while, Stranger Things and the Duffer brothers’ introduction of Surfer Boy Pizza created an avenue to do a partnership with Palermo’s that advertised a retro pizza box for sale at Walmart.
As independent as the aforementioned examples sound, they all hold similarity in that they each contain historical elements that are inextricably tied with the profit-motive that has characterized capitalism since its inception as the reigning ideology.
While many of Mark Fisher’s theoretical contributions to the left have perceivably opened the doors for more pessimism, an inkling of hope exists for those willing to organize and challenge the limited sphere of imagination that was established under capitalist realism.
Vaughn Mitchell is a high school senior living outside Chicago. His political interests include the development and origins of labor unions, abolition movements in the 20th century, and the Land Back movement. After his final year of high school, he hopes to study data science and political science on the East Coast.
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