How to escape the slow cancellation of the future
OPINION: The late critic Mark Fisher urged us to imagine alternatives to capitalist globalisation. It’s even more vital now
Read an extract from Mark Fisher’s ‘Ghosts of My Life’, which Gerry Hassan discusses below, here.
Every day somewhere, someone is complaining of being cancelled. The supposedly ubiquitous threat of ‘cancel culture’, a malign, omnipotent force, is being presented as an elemental threat to all of us.
It is nearly impossible to avoid prominent figures opining about how they have been ‘cancelled’. Some of these occasions are deeply controversial, about genuine wrongs and attempts at policing and controlling public debate. Others are no more than storms in a tea cup.
But many of the occasions that attract media attention involve the charge from right-wingers that ‘the woke’ are the greatest threat to Western civilisation ever seen – said with a straight face, despite the seriousness of the climate crisis.
Get one whole story, direct to your inbox every weekday.
‘Cancel culture’ clearly touches on a raw nerve. It is also helped by being a memorable phrase. Across Western societies, numerous fault-lines have appeared regarding how we collectively talk and listen, and the words and language we use.
Yet while this phrase is bandied about there is another kind of cancellation which gets sparse attention and yet defines much of our politics, public debate and government. It is the widespread sense that the future, our collective future on this planet, has been postponed – or more accurately, that the potential of humanity to create alternative futures to the present is seriously on the skids.
The future deferred
The late theorist Mark Fisher, whose ‘Ghosts of My Life’ has just been published in a new revised edition, wrote of “the slow cancellation of the future” – the collapse of hopes that politically, economically and socially, the world might be improved – and the need to resist this trend.
Fisher drew from such concepts as ‘hauntology’ to create the idea of ‘lost futures’ – both of which appear in the subtitle of ‘Ghosts of My Life’. These describe the long legacy of a set of once powerful ideas which contributed to shaping Western societies but are now little more than echoes and cliché. Jacques Derrida’s original idea of ‘hauntology’ was primarily about Marxism’s influence in the West; in Fisher’s analysis it is about a much wider interpretation of Western culture and politics.
Fisher’s work has a relationship with that of the critic Simon Reynolds, who writes a pithy afterword to the current collection. Reynolds has interrogated the increasing grip of nostalgia on popular music culture, most notably in his book ‘Retromania’.
Nostalgia increasingly defines the content of not just popular music, but the wider terrain of arts, culture and creativity. There is an audible yearning for past glories and a belief in previous golden eras of expression and inventiveness: the 1960s obviously, but now the 1970s and even 1980s.
With this tangible sense of looking backward comes a profound sense of loss, and feeling lesser in the present. Why do Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and the Stones still matter so much? Fantastic and joyful as they were, could it not be that there is a little too much investment in the Beatles’ story?
As Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker pointed out, continually reliving the 1960s makes us in the here and now “children of the echo”, constantly living in the shadow of that decade’s ‘Big Bang’ and plagiarising it to ever-diminishing returns: ‘Britpop’ anyone?
“Where is the 21st century equivalent of Kraftwerk?” writes Fisher in ‘Ghosts of My Life’ – a feeling that many of us who grew up with pop music as it broke barriers and made new sounds will share. Where is the music taking us out of the now, and sketching out different identities – even liberation – and the possibilities of a different future?
British creativity slowly disappeared as social mobility collapsed
These shifts relate to the changing contours of social class in post-war Britain. In the 1950s and 60s there were increasing opportunities for working class people in employment, life choices and chances, and in the world of arts and entertainment. This was a time of new openings in TV, drama, music and the arts, and of overthrowing the old stuffy, constraining attitudes of Victorian Britain that still seemed to have power.
The long tail of this era of British creativity continued as a counter-story to Thatcher’s Britain in the 1980s, but it slowly disappeared as social mobility collapsed, benefits were taken away from those in poverty and younger people and the forces of privilege reasserted their position. Alongside the rising power of nostalgia, popular culture became less a sense of liberation and of challenging authority, and more about playing it safe.
The band Coldplay are not the sole culprits here, but they and a host of anodyne privately-educated white men became the new mainstream norm, playing music to dull your senses. In 'Steal as Much as You Can’, the critic Nathalie Olah calls this the “toffification” of culture: the exclusion of working-class and challenging voices. This is a real ‘cancel culture’ if we could only recognise it.
The cancellation of the future is a product of the epic political, economic and social changes we have witnessed in recent decades. The emergence and dominance of an unrepentant, turbo-charged aggressive capitalism; the rise of a billionaire class and the idolisation of them in wider culture now seems unstoppable.
‘Cancel culture’, globalisation and the future
Some may think Fisher exaggerates his thesis; that it’s melodramatic to claim the future has been taken from us. But others back up his perspective.
In 2004, in ‘Well and Good: How We Feel and Why It Matters’, the Australian writer Richard Eckersley suggested that the only version of tomorrow on offer is a bigger version of today: an accelerated, more materialist, wealthier version of the present globalised order. This effectively said to Western populations: “don’t worry, the future has already been decided by people with more power and influence than you. They know what is best for you and the planet.”
In today’s bleaker climate, Eckersley seems too positive if anything. At his time of writing, before the 2008 financial crisis put an end to the long economic boom, he saw the problem as “linear optimism”: political elites could only promise a bigger, better version of the present. Now, with our unfolding economic and environmental crises, we do not even have that narrow offering. But his wider argument chimes with Fisher.
Disappointment, anger and loss characterise so much of our politics, government and culture. No one really thinks Liz Truss, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Joe Biden or indeed Keir Starmer have anything original to say or are up for the challenges we face. But where are our feasible alternatives at a world-system level?
Instead, concepts like ‘cancel culture’ dominate our politics. It is not an accident that in the present climate it is the ideologically-charged Right who have come up with some of the most effective framing: alongside ‘cancel culture’ sit such terms as ‘culture wars’ and ‘virtue signalling.’
The forces of the Right have been in the ascendant globally over the past four decades. Yet while their version of the world once had at least the pretence of a better future, it has been blown apart. Everywhere, we are facing new challenges and pressures.
The rise of concepts like ‘cancel culture’ is in part a diversion from the Right’s abject failure, particularly in the economic dimension. But it is also a belated realisation on the part of the Right that the old cultures of authority, deference and control have steadily diminished, and that new forms of social control and manipulation are needed. The aim is not only to delegitimise new voices, but to stop us thinking and being creative about the big questions – to stop us imagining a different future.
Everywhere there now seems to be discontent with the existing global capitalist system
Yet that is only part of the story. We are living through times of epic transformation: of capitalism, technology, and the climate.
Everywhere there now seems to be resistance to and discontent with the existing global capitalist system – and in the UK to the dominance of right-wing ideas. This can be seen in every part of society: from the return of the power of labour and workers on strike, to the collapse of privatisation, as a rigged energy distribution market immiserates more than half the population and England’s rivers and seas are filled with raw sewage.
Added to this are the widening fissures in the union that makes up the UK. A new political sentiment in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales increasingly does not look to Westminster, but to new regional alliances across the isles and beyond. Meanwhile, a destructive British state nationalism projects a mythical version of Ukania which never existed.
None of this would come as a surprise to Mark Fisher, who lived to see the first major expressions of these creative currents, new solidarities and nascent new political cultures. But he would also have recognised in all these strands – labour power, resistance to private monopolies in public goods, the Scottish independence movement – the dangers of nostalgia. We must avoid a yearning for the civilised capitalist world and pre-1979 Britain which never was that compassionate, progressive or liberating.
We have to dare to dream. To conceive and build different futures is central to being human. We cannot let the real ‘cancel culture’ steal our future.
‘Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures’, by Mark Fisher, is published in a new edition by Zero Books
Get our weekly email