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Systems of Governance

All That is Solid Melts into PR

Mark Fisher, author of the book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? and the blogger known as k-punk, speaks to Bongani Kona about the social, economic and cultural totality of late capitalism, the pervasive cynicism in which we seem to be mired, the omnipresence of PR and the possibility of countering it all by re-igniting a belief in the public good.

Bongani Kona (BK): During a recent visit to Cape Town, the legendary civil rights activist Angela Davis said “nowadays our lives are so saturated with capital that even our dreams are of commodities”. How is this fetishisation of the commodity connected to PR (public relations)?

Mark Fisher (MF): I’m not sure it’s even a fetishism of the commodity any more. It’s more a fetishism of certain promotional modes – modes in which, of course, it is assumed that our subjectivity is for sale. But for me it is the idea of promotion as an end in itself that is the signature of the dominance of PR. Increasingly, we don’t produce something, then promote it – we are encouraged to produce only insofar as it will lead to promotional opportunities. Promotion becomes rather like capital itself, something that incessantly expands for its own sake. PR is the art of appearance, of constructing an image for what Lacanian psychoanalysis calls the big Other – an other that doesn’t actually exist, but exerts enormous influence in its virtuality. No empirical individual is stupid enough to believe corporate mission statements, or companies promising to be “passionate” about whatever banal product they are hawking. But the fact that no empirical individual believes any of this doesn’t mean it is ineffective. The Other posited by PR is something like what is “officially” taken for reality; so long as the Other is seen to believe in PR, it continues to work.

BK: The dominant question asked during and after the 2008 financial crisis was “when will things get back to normal?” – implying that the status quo before the crash was normal and benefited everyone. Could you elaborate more on this?

MF: It’s clear now that the right has reframed the old “normal” as unsustainable – not because it was riven with inequality, or based on unstable and arcane financial machineries, but because it was “unaffordable”. An extraordinary and audacious sleight-of-hand has succeeded in shifting the blame for the crisis from the super-wealthy to the poor and the vulnerable. We’re repeatedly told that it was overspending on “welfare” that caused the crisis – a mantra that has functioned more like neuro-linguistic programming than any argument based in fact. It’s notable how frequently the concept of “realism” was invoked after 2008 in order to justify the austerity programme. Capitalist realism has certainly shifted in tone. Before 2008, capitalist realism had a bullying quality – it was a case of we either had to submit to neoliberalism or find ourselves crushed. After 2008, capitalist realism had a more consensual tone – it was no longer a case of “if you don’t join us, you’ll be annihilated”, so much as “if we don’t all work together, everything is doomed”. The slogan the British government used –“we’re all in this together” – summed up this new strategy. Sadly, it seems to have worked.

BK: Dean Starkman’s insightful book The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism goes to some lengths to explain why business journalists didn’t see the crash coming. In short, they were too embedded in the system. However, this seems to be symptomatic of a larger crisis in journalism – spanning everything from business to arts writing. The line between PR and journalism seems to be disappearing. What are your thoughts on this?

MF: Yes. In his important book Flat Earth News, Nick Davies shows that the underfunding of investigative journalism has allowed PR more influence than ever before. According to Davies, an astonishing proportion of “stories” in broadsheet newspapers – I think it’s as much as 60% – can be traced back to PR agencies. Davies points to the influence of so-called “astroturf” pressure groups, groups which simulate grassroots organisations, but which are just flimsy fronts for PR companies. The cutting back of funding for journalists to actually go and investigate stories means that the resources for exposing these scams simply aren’t there; so the same scam can be used time after time. If journalists are required to file ten stories a day, as they are increasingly expected to, this is inevitable. The consequence is that more and more mass-mediated discourse is being generated from press releases and other PR material. It’s part of the saturation of the communicative sphere through the form of PR. In The Return of the Public, Dan Hind argued that the only way to tackle this is by the development of a new system of funding for investigative journalism. Clearly, the “market” can’t be relied upon to support investigative journalism any more, if indeed it ever could.

BK: Do you think a new system for funding investigative journalism would work? We are seeing some of that already. Newspapers that are partly funded by the Gates Foundation, Ford, the Open Society Foundation, for example. I’m not sure if this is an entirely positive development. Arundhati Roy says in her book Capitalism: A Ghost Story that corporate philanthropy, with its emphasis on “good governance”, props up the system rather than working against it. What are your thoughts?    

MF: Certainly, the last thing we need is more corporate philanthropy. But Dan Hind’s idea is rather that this new system for resourcing investigative journalism would be publicly funded. The whole idea is to provide a rival to corporate-dominated media, not to further extend it. It’s part of Hind’s ambitious scheme for a reconstituting of the public. Hind argues that the old model of the public as the state has been discredited – it’s neither desirable nor possible for it to return. In his book The Return of the Public, Hind suggests that what we need is a system of public commissioning – for investigative journalism and for scientific research, which is equally dominated by the corporate agenda, of course. Projects would be funded out of public money, and members of the public would sit on panels deciding which projects should be supported. I think this is an imaginative solution to the democratic deficit in current media.   

BK: Another effect of PR’s reach has been to separate ongoing environmental catastrophes from capitalism. By pushing a message of a green economy, that “everyone is supposed to recycle”, corporate perpetrators are able to recede into invisibility. What views do you have on this shift in responsibility?

MF: It’s another form of outsourcing. The situation with the green agenda is a good example of the way in which capital seeks to absorb and neutralise opposition to it. Twenty years ago, green issues were disdained as marginal. Now, every corporation – especially the most rapacious and ecologically destructive – has to look as if it is green. As ever with PR, this is all about creating an appearance for the Other. The whole emphasis on individuals recycling is part of a project to distract from the systemic causes of environmental destruction. It feeds the illusion that the environmental crisis can be tackled by shifts in individuals’ behaviour and lifestyle, rather than by wholesale change in social, political and economic conditions. It also serves a “responsibilising” function, shifting the blame from capitalism onto individuals.

BK: In the digital age, giant corporates attempt to humanise themselves through a variety of means – we can even befriend or pledge our like for them on Facebook. Is cyperspace accelerating PR’s grip? How far does the PR sheath stretch?

MF: There’s no doubt that cyberspace is accelerating PR’s grip. With something like Facebook and Twitter, we’re encouraged into becoming the PR consultants of our own subjectivity. (The flip side of this is the way that much of Twitter functions as a seething pit of antisocial discontent and pathological antagonism: in other words, as the underside of PR, everything that PR and its “official” version of reality repress.) And, as you’ve said, social media allow corporations to interpellate us in new ways. As Baudrillard realised long ago, capital’s preferred mode of capture now is not crude repressiveness or the hard sell, but the injunction to participate. “Join in the debate”, tweet your feedback, tell us what you think … Something like Twitter functions to both naturalise the promotional impulse and convert it into a compulsion embedded in everyday life. If you spend much time on Twitter, it’s hard to see it as some secondary site where you promote activities, events or publications. It quickly comes to motivate your actions – so, increasingly, we don’t do things first then promote them on Twitter; we do things so we can talk about them on Twitter. This is the tendency with the promotional impulse: it starts to become more important than any other activity, a blind drive, a vortex into which everything else is sucked.

BK: In what you name “auditing culture”, it’s deemed more important to look the part than to be the part. Substance is secondary to appearance. What alternative modes of communication exist that remove an emphasis on image?

MF: Auditing culture is a classic case of PR supplanting almost all other functions in an institution. As with Stalinism, what comes to matter is the appearance, how things look to the big Other. This appearance involves a massive bureaucracy, which will set targets, assess performance and collect data. So, institutions become devoted to generating the data that these agencies surveil. It’s well known that targeting and auditing culture produce all kinds of perverse effects – anything that is measured by the official metric doesn’t count, so there is a motive to neglect it. In education, as soon as there were league tables, for instance, institutions became almost exclusively orientated towards examination results. This changed the function of exams – once, they were there to test what students had learned; now students practically only learn what will help them pass the examinations. The problem isn’t image, per se, it’s that these mechanisms are part of a systematic assault on the autonomy of workers. The real point of these systems is not to increase “efficiency” or “transparency”, but to inculcate a permanent state of anxiety in workers while also naturalising market relations, or, rather, subordinating all other activities to marketing, or selling for its own sake. We need to make dismantling the bureaucracies of neoliberal governance an urgent priority – but we also need to posit a different kind of big Other, one interested in a concept that capitalist realism has been based on denigrating… the public good. What if institutions were once again based on a model of public service, rather than on meeting the demands of “consumers”? This wouldn’t necessarily put us beyond appearances – but appearances would now serve a different purpose.

This story features in Chronic Books, the supplement to the Chronic – New Cartographies (March 2015). Through dispatches, features, interviews and reviews, we explore the reach of public relations and petrodollars.

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