Capitalist Realism and Education


Education has been at the heart of what I have called capitalist realism. What the function of education is, how it is to be funded, how students understand themselves, the way that teachers and lecturers are trained and inspected: all of these processes have been changed out of all recognition in the last thirty years by the culture of capitalist realism.

Put simply, capitalist realism is the belief that there is no alternative to capitalism – that, in Fredric Jameson’s phrase, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Yet to describe capitalist realism in such terms can be misleading. For capitalist realism is defined more by the apparent disappearance of politics than by any sort of positive political belief. It refers to a situation in which capitalist social and commodity relations have become naturalised to the point where they are invisible.

If there really is no alternative to capitalism, if capitalism occupies the limits of what can be imagined (and everything that can be imagined is capitalist) then the very name ‘capitalism’ ceases to have any reference. The question becomes: capitalist, compared to what? One of capitalism’s great advantages is its mutant adaptability, its improvisational capacity to thrive in many different cultural settings. Since 1989, the choice has no longer between capitalism and communism, but between different forms of capitalism (liberal, authoritarian, theocratic . . .) What is perhaps surprising is that, five years after a major crisis of capitalism – a crisis that is no sense resolved – social democratic capitalism remains an impossibility in those countries dominated by neoliberalism. Instead of a rolling back of neoliberalism, capital has, with breathtaking audacity, used the crisis to further embed and extend the neoliberal project of destroying solidarity and social security. The success of neoliberalism was premised on the idea that social democracy was not sustainable, not ‘realistic’ – and the crisis has not got anywhere close to forcing capital into giving this conviction up.

Capitalist realism is typically exhibited less in grand beliefs about political economy than in the behaviours we are compelled to engage in at work. It manifests itself in a fatalistic acceptance that, since pay and working conditions will inevitably deteriorate, since we are ‘lucky’ to have a job at all, then we must acquiesce to practically any demand that management imposes on us. It also manifests itself in the language that we are now required to use – a language derived from business but which long since infiltrated all forms of work, including public services (and in the terms of the new language, the very concept of public services has an archaic feel).

Over the past thirty years, teachers have found themselves increasingly subject to this new language and to its massively proliferating bureaucracy. They have been required to ritualistically affirm the platitudes of the new business language, while completing more and more bureaucratic meta-work: log-books, continuing personal development, performance reviews. Meanwhile, lecturers in higher education are subject to the highly bureaucratic Research Excellence Framework, which rates their ‘output’ as researchers. Here, on the face of it, is one of the paradoxes of neoliberalism. Didn’t Thatcher and her fellow neoliberals promise to liberate us from the red tape of bureaucracy? Why, then, do teachers and lecturers find themselves entangled in more bureaucratic processes than ever before? The answer is that it was only a certain kind of bureaucracy – that which regulated capital – which neoliberalism was interested in dismantling. While capital gained more freedom, workers – particularly workers in public services – found their autonomy eroded.

The public service worker is no longer subject only to external, centralised bureaucracy, with its periodic inspections and assessments. Instead, bureaucracy becomes immanent to work itself, a continuous process to which workers themselves must contribute via practices of self-surveillance. The result is a massive increase in anxiety, with increasing numbers of teachers suffering from stress-related illnesses.

The role and status of the student has also changed. The new language has encouraged students to see themselves as ‘consumers’ and education as a commodity – a commodity that they are increasingly expected to pay for themselves. In his book Kettled Youth, Dan Hancox went so far as to say that the student protests against the imposition of increased university fees in 2010 shattered capitalist realism. While the student protests – the first real outbreak of militancy in the UK since the financial crisis of 2008 – certainly constituted a challenge to capitalist realism, they were in no position to defeat it. Instead, university students find themselves the anxious bearers of heavy debts, while crazed neoliberal ideologue Michael Gove seeks to convert as many schools as possible into quasi-privatised Academies.

We must must continue to assert a purpose for schools and universities that goes beyond the needs of business for a supply of passive consumers and cheap, compliant workers. (Even this might be an overly optimistic view of what capital wants from students now. In his bleak new book, The Falling Rate of Learning, David Blacker argues that, from capital’s point of view, much of the population is effectively surplus now that it no longer needs workers in the massive numbers it once did.) But it is long past time that teachers and lecturers pushed back against the wasteful and oppressive bureaucratic forces which sap our energy, demoralise us, and restrict our professional autonomy. The trade unions’ favoured tactic of the one-day strike alienates many potentially sympathetic members of the public while doing little to reverse the decline in teachers’ status and working conditions. We need to think more inventively about forms of industrial action – such as withdrawal of bureaucratic labour – that will disrupt the managerialist take-over of the education system.



  1. October 2, 2013 at 10:45 pm · Reply

    ‘withdrawal of bureaucratic labour’- nursing faces a similar bind, despite the surprising announcement by the usually very conservative RCN that strike actions would not be in breach of the NMC Code of Practice. One of the favoured modes of industrial action in nursing, here, in the US and in Australia, has been the “good work strike”.


  2. October 2, 2013 at 11:19 pm · Reply

    Read this in Exchange. Like the analysis of modern capitalism’s use of a massive stifling bureaucracy to head off any alternatives. Agree about alternative forms of industrial action. But I really don’t like the argument that one day strikes ‘alienate’ people. This has always been the argument of the TU right against all industrial action and applies just as much to some kind of anti bureaucratic work to rule – what happens when this leads to a bad OFSTED report?

    The crucial factor as between forms of industrial action is, for revolutionaries, the extent to which they strengthen workers’ self activity and solidarity in the workplace, not some’ largely fictional ‘public opinion’. Bureaucratic one day strikes don’t do much for this, to be sure, but I don’t think choosing other forms of action with a nervous eye to people who might otherwise be mildly inconvenienced is going to get us far.

  3. Stuart King
    October 15, 2013 at 11:23 am · Reply

    Richard is quite right – especially as we approach the third regional one day teachers strike. If strikes in the public services did not “inconvenience the public” they would be very ineffective ones! You keep the public onside by explaining what the issues are and why if the government isn’t stopped the services will get worse – NHS, schools, Libraries etc

    The problem with “withdrawal of bureaucratic labour” – a work to rule in other words is that it individualises action and is very difficult for the union to monitor, some people do it some don’t. A strike brings people out together, a picket line pressurises people to join, to follow the majority decision. A strike run properly increases collective strength, allows people to debate and argue, exchange ideas on the picket and in mass meetings.

    Mark Fisher leaves out the counter forces to capitalist realism, importantly organised trade unionism that at its best cuts through management speak and their divide and rule tactics – it counteracts fatalism through action and organisation. Leaving out this factor leaves Mark with a very pessimistic – almost Marcuseian – perspective that over exaggerates the unchallenged hegemony of capitalist ideas within the workplace and society.

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