Call for Papers – Music Education in the Age of Capitalist Realism

Call for Papers

Special Issue: Music Education in the Age of Capitalist Realism
Guest Editor: Sean Powell (College of Music, University of North Texas)

The late British philosopher, music critic, and political theorist Mark Fisher (1968–2017) coined the term capitalist realism to describe the ideological frame that undergirds our current social, cultural, economic, and political life-worlds. He summarized the concept with the phrase, “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”[1] As he explained, “That slogan captures precisely what I mean by ‘capitalist realism’: 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.”[2] Fisher further described the ideological nature of this concept thus:

Capitalist realism as I understand it cannot be confined to art or the quasi-propagandistic way in which advertising functions. It is more like a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as kind of an invisible barrier constraining thought and action.[3]

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, philosopher Francis Fukuyama famously claimed in 1989 that we had reached “the end of history”—that, with the defeat of “actually existing socialism” by capitalism, we had reached the “the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”[4] The future development of political and economic systems was therefore, in his view, foreclosed. For Fisher, capitalism is “realistic” in that it serves as the unnoticed background within which we act. It seems to be the natural state of the world to those who have lived their lives in capitalistic societies. In this way, capitalist realism is ideological, in that it structures the parameters of reality while going largely unquestioned.

Similarly, American political theorist Wendy Brown sees our current predicament as one in which the market tenets of neoliberal capitalism have spread—without significant resistance or debate—from the economy proper to all areas of social, cultural, and political existence. Invoking Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse, she describes this situation as the “closing of the political universe—the erasure of intelligible, legitimate alternatives to economic rationality.”[5] Not only has neoliberal capitalism constructed a new economic and material reality, its advance marks “a new production of subjectivity.”[6] Within this frame, all aspects of life, even those previously outside the economic sphere, are subjected to the model of the market as human beings are configured “exhaustively as market actors, always, only, and everywhere as homo oeconomicus,”[7] even when direct profit-making is not enacted.

The capitalist base of society serves as the “pervasive atmosphere” within which music education exists in many nations. For example, in many contexts, teachers have developed a sense that organizing music education around competition is the only viable system, and it has thus become impossible for them to imagine alternatives to the competitive structures that undergird so many music programs, converting the use value of musical learning into the exchange value of competitive scores.[8] In these school music contexts, structuring music learning as competition “seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable”[9] as an a priori, taken-for-granted substructure of music education.[10] In addition to this competitive structure, capitalist realism’s effects (market logic, business ontology, entrepreneurial ethos, instrumental aims, economic centering and marginalization, hierarchical structures, precarity and scarcity, etc.) appear in music education in myriad ways.

Capitalism is the pre-given, taken-for-granted base upon which the global hegemonic economic system’s social superstructures—including music education systems— are built. The effect of this system reaches people in nominally non-capitalist nations. Given these dynamics, this special issue of ACT invites manuscripts that examine and critique capitalist realism as it relates to the theory and practice of music education. While we seek manuscripts that employ Fisher’s concept of capitalist realism as a frame, a direct, explicit engagement with Fisher’s work is not required (although it is certainly welcome).[11] Authors are also strongly encouraged to engage with scholarship previously published in ACT that addresses issues of capitalism and socioeconomic status.[12]

Possible themes may include but are not limited to:

  • How can music education (and/or the arts in general) contribute to a critique and/or amelioration of capitalism’s effects? Given Fisher’s background as a music critic (aka the music blogger k-punk), how does music, in particular, factor into this theoretical matrix?
  • What possible alternatives can we offer to capitalist realism? What are the conditions of possibility for conceiving of such alternatives? How could or should music education appear differently under such alternative scenarios?
  • How does an intentional (re)focus on a critique of capitalist ideology within music education scholarship and praxis—with its centering of the class struggle—inform, augment, intersect, or potentially conflict with scholarly critiques centered on other oppressive social structures (e.g., racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism)?
  • How can a return to the critical dimension (combating post-political ideology) offer space for envisioning alternative modes of music teaching and learning without succumbing to naïve utopianism? How can we combat “the commodification of political engagement and the reduction of politics to the performative signaling of political affiliation and support which forestalls an ‘actual’ political agency towards palpable material change?”
  • Given Fisher’s focus on post-Fordist finance capitalism as it manifests in the Global North (in the U.K. and U.S. in particular), how might the critique of capitalist infused music education practices appear different in other settings?
  • What are the potential deficiencies within the capitalist realism concept of ideology critique as it relates to music teaching and learning?
  • How have the technological, social, cultural, and economic changes that have occurred since 2009 (the publication year of Capitalist Realism) weakened or strengthened Fisher’s position, and what are the implications for music education?
  • How can the explicit capitalist intervention in music education (e.g., corporate sponsorship of music education as a market-building strategy, public-private partnerships, outsourcing public education to private interests, the interpellation of music teachers and students as “entrepreneurs,” school choice, vouchers, charter schools) be critiqued and challenged, and what alternative models could be considered?
  • How can an analysis of the capitalist commodification of music, which leverages desire by producing phantasmal objects for consumption, problematize the use of “popular” music in education?
  • Can a renewed emphasis on economic class dynamics in music classrooms inform a reconceptualized framework for music education philosophy, advocacy, and praxis?
  • Do current (or historical) philosophies or approaches to music education knowingly or unwittingly support capitalist exploitation?

Submission Deadline: Please submit your manuscript as a Word document via e-mail, no later than January 1, 2024 to Dr. Sean Powell at, copied to the ACT Editor Dr. Lauren Kapalka Richerme at

Submission Guidelines

Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education is devoted to the critical study and analysis of issues related to the field of music education. ACT welcomes submissions from diverse perspectives (e.g. education, music, philosophy, sociology, history, psychology, curriculum studies), dealing with critical, analytical, practical, theoretical, or policy development concerns, as well as submissions that seek to apply, challenge, or extend the MayDay Group’s Action Ideals.

Article Length: ACT imposes no set restrictions on length. However, authors may be asked to shorten submissions where reviewers or the editor determine that an essay’s length is not warranted by its content.
Formatting: Please format submissions using the most recent edition of the Chicago Manual of Style’s “author-date system” with the following three adaptations: 1) omit quotations marks around titles in reference lists, 2) follow APA conventions for capitalization in reference lists, and 3) use closed ellipses (necessary for html formatting). Endnotes are permitted. Audio and video materials are encouraged. Also, ACT encourages the use of “they” (and any derivation) as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun. Consult a recent issue of ACT or contact the editors for more information if required.

Abstract and Keywords: Submissions must be accompanied by a brief abstract (ca. 100–150 words) and a short list of keywords.

About the Author: Include a 100–150-word biography for each author.

Languages: Following ACT’s special issue guidelines on the Decolonization of Music Education, and with the purpose of actively diversifying knowledge creation strategies, this special issue also welcomes manuscripts that were originally published in a language other than English and in a venue not commonly accessible by all. Submitters are required to provide the English translation of their submissions.

Peer Review Process: ACT submissions are subject to a rigorous process of anonymized peer review. Final publication decisions rest with the editors (in consideration of reviewer recommendations).


[1] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Winchester, UK: Zer0 Books, 2009), 2.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 16.

[4] Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” The National Interest, no. 16 (1989): 3–18.

[5] Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (New York: Zone Books, 2015), 68.

[6] Rachel Greenwald Smith, Affect and American Literature in the Age of Neoliberalism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 5.

[7] Brown, Undoing the Demos, 31.

[8] Joseph Michael Abramo, “The Phantasmagoria of Competition in School Ensembles,” Philosophy of Music Education Review 25, no. 2 (2017): 165.

[9] Fisher, Capitalist Realism, 8.

[10] Sean Robert Powell, The Ideology of Competition in School Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2023), 29.

[11] For an example of the use of the concept of capitalist realism as an analytical frame in music education scholarship, see Chapter 2, “It’s Easier to Imagine the End of Music Education Than then End of Competition,” in Powell, The Ideology of Competition in School Music.

[12] For example, see (among many others) articles appearing in the special issue of ACT on neoliberalism and music education (volume 20, issue 3).

[13] Schutzbach, There is an Alternative, 47.