Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism and Barking Riverside

Barking Riverside – a place like no other
I finally returned to document the development at Barking Riverside a couple of Sundays ago, late in the afternoon. I’d wrongly assumed that the project was largely complete and had only previously skirted around the fringes, firstly in 2017 and then last October at the end of my walk along the Gores Brook. I’ll confess I’d only done a cursory browse of the developer’s website and saw my visit as merely to observe and document, not to critique or unpick the underlying economics and what this might say about the ongoing reshaping of London. However, one comment on YouTube caught my attention this morning:
“love you John and have for years, but I would have liked you to do more of a critique of the politics of this kind of development; I know you get this stuff – not sure why you avoided it”
This is a fair point and particularly as I approach the self-publication of my book ‘Welcome to New London’ that does indeed take in the political dimensions of some new developments in London. But I hadn’t done an adequate amount of research on this complex development to be able to inform any kind of critique.

Barking Riverside, January 2023

Capitalist Realism and Urban development via ChatGPT

I found myself this afternoon thinking about Mark Fisher’s highly influential book, Capitalist Realism, which I confess I haven’t read but my son has, and talked about it a lot. So I turned to ChatGPT to provide a summary and then relate Fisher’s ideas to the subject of urban development and by extension, I suppose we can see how this relates (or not) to Barking Riverside. Below is my exchange with ChatGPT:

hi – can you give me a summary of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism please?

“Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism is a book that argues that the dominant ideology in Western societies is a belief that capitalism is the only viable economic system and that it is natural and inevitable. Fisher contends that this belief, which he refers to as “capitalist realism,” has led to a sense of resignation and hopelessness among many people, making it difficult to imagine alternatives to capitalism and to fight for change. He also argues that this ideology has had a profound impact on culture and art, leading to a focus on surface-level spectacle and a lack of critical engagement with the underlying realities of society. The book explores the ways in which capitalist realism has been reinforced by political and economic changes, and the ways in which it can be challenged.”

Barking Riverside pylons

Is there any way that Fisher’s ideas relate to the development of cities and the built environment?

“Mark Fisher’s ideas about “capitalist realism” can certainly be related to the development of cities and the built environment. In his book, Fisher argues that capitalist realism has led to a sense of resignation and hopelessness among many people, making it difficult to imagine alternatives to capitalism and to fight for change.
In the context of urban development, capitalist realism can be seen as promoting the idea that the current form of urban development is natural and inevitable, and that there are no alternatives to the current patterns of urban growth and development. This can lead to a lack of critical engagement with the underlying realities of urban development, such as the ways in which capitalist urban development can reinforce inequality, lead to displacement of marginalised communities, and contribute to environmental degradation.
Fisher’s ideas can also be related to the ways in which urban development and the built environment are shaped by the demands of capital, or the means of producing and exchanging wealth. The drive for profit can lead to the development of cities that prioritise the needs of business and the wealthy over the needs of the majority of residents. This can manifest in the form of gentrification, where low-income communities are pushed out of neighbourhoods in order to make way for more profitable development.
In summary, Fisher’s ideas about capitalist realism can be applied to the development of cities and the built environment in the sense that they highlight the ways in which capitalist ideology can limit our ability to imagine alternative forms of urban development and obscure the negative impacts of urban development on marginalised communities and the environment.”

ChatGPT’s response here certainly rings true when questioning urban development in London:
– that the current form of urban development is natural and inevitable
– capitalist ideology can limit our ability to imagine alternative forms of urban development

The idea that new homes could be built in collaboration with the local community to meet their housing needs in line with average incomes is seen as being wildly unrealistic. The ratio of social housing to so-called ‘affordable homes’ and private ownership properties is ultimately set by the profit-motive of the developers, despite the low targets set by the GLA. And the cost of ‘affordable homes’ is not based on average incomes, or the incomes in the areas where the homes are being built, but on the balance sheet of the developers.

Landscape and the transformation of reality

Patrick Keiller London book
Abbey Creek West Ham p.10-11 – near where Patrick Keiller taught at North East London Polytechnic 1983-92

Patrick Keiller, Mark Fisher, W.G. Sebald and Will Self on the possibilities created by engagement with the landscape

I came across an edited extract of the following quote from Patrick Keiller in Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of My Life. This is the full passage from Keiller’s essay Landscape and cinematography published in cultural geographies 16 in 2009:
“I had embarked on landscape film-making in 1981, early in the Thatcher era, after encountering a surrealist tradition in the UK and elsewhere, so that cinematography involved the pursuit of a transformation, radical or otherwise, of everyday reality. I recently came across a description, in Kitty Hauser’s Bloody old Britain, of O.G.S. Crawford’s photography: ‘Like photographers of the New Objectivity, clarity was his goal. Like them, he favoured stark contrasts, with no blurring or mistiness. His focus, like theirs, was on the object or the scene in front of him, which it was his aim to illuminate as clearly as he could. [. . .] It was commitment that lit up his photographs [. . .] Such photographs suggest a love of the world that was almost mystical in its intensity.’ I had forgotten that photography is often motivated by utopian or ideological imperatives, both as a critique of the world, and to demonstrate the possibility of creating a better one, even if only by improving the quality of the light.”

Patrick Keiller - The Possibility of Life's Survival on the Planet

Elsewhere in the essay, Keiller cites Fredric Jameson. ‘It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the break-down of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations.’ (The seeds of time, 1996). Mark Fisher also drew on Jameson’s statement for the animating thesis of his book Capitalist Realism, published in the same year as Keiller’s essay, 2009. Fisher identified Capitalist Realism as “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” He argued that capitalist realism could only be overcome through the development of a new collective imagination, one that is capable of envisioning and creating alternatives to the current system. His proposed “politics of possibility” would open up new avenues for collective action and social transformation. Much like Keiller had seen the possibility of transforming reality through landscape film-making.

St George's Lutheran Church London E1
St George’s Lutheran Church

The Jameson quote was paraphrased by the author Will Self in a talk he gave the other night (20th December 2022) at St George’s German Lutheran Church in Whitechapel, entitled: The Ghost of Future Past – WG Sebald and the Trauma of Modernity. In his talk Self noted how Sebald was far more concerned with the looming ecological catastrophe and environmental breakdown than he is given credit for. He recounts a chance encounter he had with Sebald on Dunwich Heath in 1992 while he was living in the area writing his novel Great Apes. Self was ‘knuckle-walking’ like a chimp as research for the book when he came across Sebald’s path. Sebald was embarked on a walk along the Suffolk coast for his seminal work, The Rings of Saturn. Self did not know who Sebald was at this point, and it’s not clear if Sebald recognised Will Self who, although lauded for his excellent debut collection of stories, The Quantity Theory of Insanity (1991), hadn’t yet punctured the mainstream in the way he was shortly to do. Self recalled how their conversation had centred around the subject of ecocide. This encounter was retold in the early drafts of Rings of Saturn (with the Will Self character dressed in white silk pantaloons) and later edited out.

Greyfriars Friary Dunwich
Greyfriars Friary Dunwich

The fact that Patrick Keiller, Will Self and Mark Fisher are drawing from the same critique of late-capitalism should not be surprising given their shared interest in the changing nature of place and landscape. I’m not sure what Keiller made of Sebald’s writing but I found echoes of Keiller’s Robinson character in the eponymous central figure of Sebald’s novel Austerlitz. Stephen Watts, who’d guided Sebald through the East End on his research walks for Austerlitz, was in attendance at St George’s for the Will Self talk.

David Anderson links Keiller and Sebald (along with Iain Sinclair) in his book, Landscape and Subjectivity in the work of Patrick Keiller, W.G. Sebald, and Iain Sinclair. Anderson points out that all three draw from two principle lineages: the tradition of the ‘English Journey’, and the continental ideas generated by Surrealism and Situationism. Mark Fisher was a great admirer of both Sebald and Keiller and there are connections between their ideas of the landscape with Fisher’s promotion of hauntology. “Walking in ruins places us in a strange state of temporal dislocation, in which the past is simultaneously absent and present, for which Derrida coined the term ‘hauntology’ (in Spectres Of Marx, 1993)” – Frieze magazine, 2008.

Despite the pessimistic tone that emerges from all the writers mentioned here in their engagement with the landscape, Keiller does raise the possibility that a better world could be created – merely by looking at it.