OftA: So, Accelerationism, what’s all that about?

Now that I’m trying to rekindle the blog, I’ve realised that I should probably consolidate some bits of writing that I’ve done elsewhere. I started a tumblr several years ago for lighter writing about more general topics. That didn’t really work out, for various reasons, so I’m going to port the best bits back over here. Following previous convention, these posts are classified as ‘One from the Archives’ or OftA. I’m going to start with one of the most seemingly influential, and yet largely underground things I’ve ever written: ‘So, Accelerationism, what’s all that about?’

This was a piece written in response to Malcom Harris’ review of the #ACCELERATE reader in The New Inquiry. Since I’ve now written something about ‘neorationalism‘, I’ve been thinking about returning to ‘accelerationism’ and talking a little about the emergence of the term, my relation to it, and my thoughts about it. I’ll save the details for a later post, but now that there’s a renewed interest in the definitiongenealogy and taxonomy of accelerationism, it seems like a good time to dredge this piece up. I wasn’t the first to name the difference between left and right strands (I heard it from Benedict Singleton in Berlin in 2014), but I think I might have been the first to write about it. I’m still the top reference on the wikipedia page, at least.

So, accelerationism, what’s all that about? Well, lots of people are talking about it, and lots of them are very critical of it. As someone who has played a small role in the development of what is increasingly being called ‘left-accelerationist’ thought (I organised the second accelerationist workshop at Goldsmiths, released the #Accelerate manifesto into the twittersphere, and had a small hand in the more recent #Accelerate reader), I would like to weigh in regarding what accelerationism is, and perhaps more importantly, what it isn’t. Moreover, I’m going to take the opportunity presented by Malcom Harris’ review of the reader in The New Inquiry to do so, as it presents a paradigm case of certain important misunderstandings.

Before I do so though, it’s worth heading off a certain objection at the pass. Yes, the ‘But you haven’t understood me!’ response is often the refuge of scoundrels in response to critics. Critics shouldn’t be expected to understand the fine details of the position they’re critiquing as well as those who hold that position, even if a finer understanding of these details is in some sense always desirable. Nevertheless, there are times when this response is warranted. For better or worse, deliberately or accidentally, people do sometimes attack straw men versions of their opponents, and this leaves us all the poorer for having less productive disagreement. I don’t expect my clarifications here to convince anyone to become a card carrying accelerationist, but I do hope that they might make the actual disagreements more explicit, and thus enable something like dialectical progress in left-wing political discourse, no matter how infinitesimal this might be. I should also qualify what I’m about to say by making clear that these are my opinions, not those of any putative accelerationist hive mind, though they are informed by discussions with other people in this nexus.

So, what is this straw man Harris is supposedly responsible for? Well, it’s not a misrepresentation he’s really responsible for – it’s turned up on Charlie Stross’ blog before (as what I take to be an honest misunderstanding), and it’s even turned up on the wikipedia page (which I don’t wish to edit due to my proximity to this stuff) – and its precise origin is complicated by Ben Noys’ initial use of the term to christen and criticise a particular trend and its subsequent adoption and appropriation by Mark Fisher. However, this particular misrepresentation is the central premise of Harris’ article and will no doubt proliferate further because of this. It is very helpfully condensed into the following paragraph:

“Capitalism reduces the cost of being alive to a minimum, but just to shrink the worker’s slice as the pie grows. Eventually through this process “it becomes evident” that the owners are parasites, and the expropriated expropriate the expropriators. If all this is the case, then it logically follows that we shouldn’t be trying to slow the expropriation down, but rather we should attempt to speed the system toward its inevitable doom. This dynamic is the premise for the collection #Accelerate, new from the radically odd publisher Urbanomic.”

As Alex Williams has noted before, this is not a position that anyone has ever held. Okay, let’s qualify that a bit. It might be the case that some people have held this position, and that some of them now even think of themselves as ‘accelerationists’. So let’s limit it to the claim that it is not a position that anyone in the #Accelerate reader has ever held.

Not even Nick Land? No. Not even Nick Land. He likes capitalism. He wants to accelerate it, but not because it will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. What about Deleuze and Guattari? No. According to them ‘nothing has ever died of contradictions’, and so whatever deterritorialising force they aim to accelerate, and whatever end they aim to accelerate it towards, neither is a contradiction or its inevitable collapse. What about Srnicek and Williams? No. Much of what they do can be seen as breaking with D&G (and a fortiori with Land), and returning to a much more Marxist position, but they explicitly refuse to see the transition between capitalism and post-capitalism as a dialectical sublation brought about by the intensification of contradictions.

Well, what about Marx then?! Just how much Marx is invested in a substantive notion of contradiction as the metaphysical driving force of history is a question up for debate, and I’m not about to stumble into that particular hermeneutic hornets’ nest. Nevertheless, it’s clear that even if we take the strongest historical determinist (e.g., dialectical-materialist) reading of Marx we can find, he would still reject the inference from the claim that the increasing self-evidence of capitalist parasitism will bring about the expropriation of expropriation all on its own to the claim that we should therefore attempt to ‘speed the system towards its inevitable doom’.

None of these canonical figures, and nobody else within the collection, wants inevitable doom(although, admittedly, Nick Land’s vision might look like this to everyone but him). Indeed, the emerging left-accelerationist strand is motivated by a recognition that capitalism will not auto-destruct once the mask slips, on the one hand (see the incredible retrenchment of neoliberalism after the 2008 financial crisis), and a recognition that we need to plan and act to avoid inevitable doom, on the other (e.g., environmental crisis, economic crisis, cultural crisis, etc.). So, just to repeat: accelerationism is not about accelerating the contradictions of capitalism in any sense. Whatever is being accelerated, and there are severe and significant disagreements about this, it is not contradictions, and whatever transition this acceleration aims towards, it is not societal collapse. Got that? Can we move on? Good.

It’s now worth seeing how this misunderstanding propagates through Harris’ review, and what we can learn from this. It intersects with a few other premises, some reasonable, some not so reasonable, to produce a number of questionable conclusions. Let’s begin with a fairly reasonable one:

“As a mostly 20th century academic reader, #Accelerate includes some of the worst examples of self-indulgent left academic frivolity. We can track the evolution of ­Anglo-French accelerationism through the “Ferment” section, which reads in part like a game of Marxist telephone on acid. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s daring fusion of Marx and Freud yields Lyotard endorsing the joy of being fucked by capital yields Gilles Lipovetsky’s foolhardy “acceleration of critique.” Class struggle falls out of these accounts, as the authors arrogantly pronounce that capital’s blender has abolished such distinctions.

Although these pieces of writing are useful in constructing a genealogy, I wonder what purpose they serve acceleration itself. If we are for technosocial acceleration, then surely one of the things we can leave behind is leftist professors from the 1970s who thought “what is important is to be able to laugh and dance.” They laughed and danced into tenure and home loans, and now here we are.”

There’s a lot of truth to this. I’ve done a lot of work on Deleuze, and I find the stylistic idiosyncrasies of his work with Guattari to be deeply frustrating, let alone the way these are taken up and hyperbolically projected by later writers, no matter how deeply interesting they might be in their own right. In particular, as much as I find Lyotard to be an interesting reader of D&G, his rejection of theoretical representation in favour of theoretical libidinal production is completely disastrous. I have much more time for the sober, Kantian, Lyotard who subsequently retreats from these ideas. Moreover, it is certainly true that these theoretical trends produced a lot more faux-radicalism within academia than actual radicalism outside of it (with the exception of the IDF’s love of A Thousand Plateaus, as Harris reminds us with barely restrained glee). So, what purpose do these thinkers serve beyond mere genealogy?

Well, I can’t provide an exhaustive list of their theoretical contributions here, but it is worth mentioning a few:

1. D&G’s insistence that nothing was ever killed by contradictions is a truly formative insight. For many, this has precipitated a turn away from a dialectical materialist analysis of the contradictions inherent within the functional structure of social systems to one grounded in cybernetics and complexity theory, which can account for both constitutive and disruptive tensions between intra-systemic tendencies in more intricate ways that are equally less susceptible to common misunderstandings. Many come to a similar position from an Althusserian perspective, but D&G’s influence should not be discounted here.

2. D&G’s re-description of the transition from feudalism to capitalism – in terms of a process of deterritorialisation of social structures and norms that gives way to a process of reterritorialisation whereby these norms are selectively re-implemented – provides a vocabulary for discussing capitalism’s ability to selectively re-create feudal relations (e.g., as ever newer, more insidious forms of patriarchy, oligarchy, and colonialism) that avoids the bluntness of the discourse of real subsumption, which tends to dissolve concrete details into a homogeneous capitalist monolith (often ironically equated with ‘real abstraction’).

3. D&G and Lyotard’s attempt to combine Marxism and psychoanalysis has many problems (as does Firestone’s), but it does problematise the notions of desire and alienation in important ways. If nothing else, we can take from them the idea that there is no pure, authentic, or natural pre-capitalist form of life to return to (a point on which Firestone flinches). They encourage us not to disavow the forms of living and desire that have been produced under capitalism, simply because of this fact of their genesis. This can descend into a perverse celebration of capitalism’s destructive and oppressive tendencies (I’m looking at you, Lyotard), but it can equally become a call for greater self-consciousness regarding how we construct our desires and ourselves (here’s looking at you, Foucault), an honest appraisal that refuses to be trapped within the nostalgic false-consciousness that seeps unbidden into so much leftist discourse.

4. D&G’s notion of machinic surplus value poses an important challenge to certain traditional Marxist views, a challenge that is really distilled by Lyotard in his reading of them. This challenge actually converges with, rather than ignoring, a sentiment Harris takes from Evan Calder Williams later on in his piece:

“As Evan Calder Williams writes, “the days and bodies of humans are still far cheaper than any automation, provided money knows where to look. And it always has.” White supremacy and the gender division aren’t archaisms that capital will puree into a flow of neutered beige singularities; they’re labor relations, and integral ones.”

Harris’ criticism of Lyotard and D&G’s often too optimistic reading of the power of capital to dissolve social divisions is entirely justified, insofar as these divisions prove highly useful to maintaining many of its more important dynamics. However, in this case, the dynamic in question is one that these thinkers put their finger on in an important way: the idea that the economy is organised around a regulative principle of abstract labour (average necessary labour time) that can be functionally separated from machinic production is undermined by the very existence of liquid labour markets, through which abstract labour gains a value within the system relative to machinic production. The very fact that it is cheaper to exploit marginalised workers, and thus to prop up the systems through which they are marginalised, than to implement a machinic infrastructure not premised upon that marginalization, drives a wedge between our understanding of how modern capitalist economies actually work (by treating people and machines as fungible), and how something like a post-capitalist economy should work (by treating people and machines as non-fungible). There are deep debates to be had here about the opening sections of capital, the value-form, LTV, and the whole range of Marxist scholarship, but one should at least be able to see that there’s something interesting to discuss here.

To reiterate, this is not an exhaustive list of the worth of these thinkers, and I haven’t even really considered figures beyond D&G and Lyotard, but this should at least gesture at the insights that can be usefully gleaned from their sometimes frivolous prose. Moreover, the mistakes these thinkers make in extending their nascent insights are often as informative as the insights themselves. The excesses of Lyotard’s unconstrained libidinalism is as good a case for the necessity of constraint as D&G’s subsequent attempts to dampen the uncontrolled enthusiasm for schizophrenic deterritorialisation they accidentally engendered (not to mention the reductio ad absurdum provided by Lipovetsky). This goes double for the cyber-culture era. The return to Marx’s Prometheanism, modernism, and rationalism that is intricately entwined with the left-accelerationist project is in many ways a reaction to the dead ends encountered by the hyperbolic extension of D&G and Lyotard in the CCRU’s work, even if there are still interesting things to be found therein.

No mention of this would be complete without a denunciation of Nick Land’s turn to neoreaction, which I have elsewhere described as ‘sillier than fascism’ (your move internet). There is a genuine sense in which Land’s current views are continuous with his CCRU era work, and it is important to identify this continuity and dissect it, precisely in order to avoid the absurd conclusions to which it has led him (IMHO). I won’t go into this in depth, as Alex Williams has written a better critique of Land than I can provide here. However, I will point out an important symmetry between the left-accelerationist views of those like myself, and what are increasingly being referred to as the ‘right-accelerationist’ views of those like Land. We agree on this much: modernity and capitalism are ultimately incompatible. We disagree on which one should/will go: the left actively supports the project of modernity against capitalism, the right passively supports capitalism’s inevitable victory over modernity. The right thinks that the accelerative emancipatory force is nothing other than capitalism itself, whereas the left thinks that capitalism is an adaptive and plastic obstacle suppressing a deeper emancipatory dynamic. It is in essence a disagreement about freedom: what it is to have it, what it is to enhance it, and whether there is anything we can do about it.

So, what precisely should be accelerated? Well, as the difference between left and right accelerationism shows, there’s a good deal of disagreement about this. There is no answer that captures either all those precursors to these positions covered in the reader (e.g., Federov, Firestone, and Plant), or all those who would explicitly endorse some variant of accelerationism in the present (e.g., Land, Negarestani, and Srnicek). The reader is an introduction to the debate surrounding this question, which, as it aims to show, has a much deeper and more interesting history than might have initially been apparent. This is the most important thing which Harris’ review seems to miss:

“Technosocial acceleration means dystopia with a lot of intersecting market and non-market mechanisms of control to keep it that way. Capital can build walls and crash through them too; owners play by their own rules, their own geography. Capital draws, redraws, and enforces lines between workers according to structural necessity: It knows how to fight a class war as a race war and call it a drug war; it knows if you subject women to a culture of physical, psychological, sexual, and emotional abuse, you can pay them less; it knows borders aren’t for keeping people out, they’re for controlling the wages of the people they let in. What here is worth accelerating?”

What Harris is discussing here is precisely the dynamic of deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation that D&G spent so much time highlighting. What is dissonant here is that he seems to be suggesting that, in focusing upon deterritorialisation, accelerationism is not paying enough attention to reterritorialisation, and a fortiori that one can’t have one without the other, so why bother encouraging it in the first place? However, if there is anything that accelerationists have taken from D&G it is the crucial importance of the deterritorialisation-reterritorialisation dynamic, or the way that capitalism re-codes social structures (e.g., class, race, gender, etc.) even as it seemingly decodes them. There may be many mistakes in the various ways it has been engaged both theoretically and practically, but it has been engaged.

Right-accelerationism has converged with neoreaction precisely because it identifies the deterritorialising force with capitalism itself: it sees itself as biting the bullet, and claiming that if we want to accept the liberating alienation of capitalism we also need to accept an inevitable return to the familiar feudal structures it fleetingly displaced. Whereas classical fascism used techno-capitalism as a means to the end of anti-modernism, neoreaction uses anti-modernism as a means to the end of techno-capitalism. This is why it is sillier than fascism in my opinion – because it has sacrificed whatever liberating force it initially ascribed to capitalist alienation upon the atavistic altar of feudal domination. It is the only strand of accelerationist thought that could be said to read the above paragraph and find something worth accelerating, at least insofar as it sees capital’s oppressive reconfiguration of the social space as the inevitable price techno-industrial development.

Left-accelerationism begins from the premise that the deterritorialising force is not capitalism itself, but that the transition from feudalism to capitalism was the expression of an emancipatory drive that capitalism’s reterritorialising dynamics has systematically (but never wholly) suppressed. The various genealogical indices within the reader present a number of ways of thinking about the nature of this drive (e.g., Marx’s Prometheanism, Federov’s cosmism, Veblen’s machine-process, etc.), and the various original contributions present ways of reconceiving and appropriating these (e.g., Srnicek & Williams’ project of collective self-mastery, Singleton’s generalised escapology, Negarestani’s inhumanism, etc.). This is equally the outright rejection of the premise of Land’s retort at the end of the reader (‘Teleoplexy’), namely, that techno-industrial acceleration (Veblen’s machine-process) is inseparable from financial-commercial acceleration (Veblen’s business enterprise). The claim is that we can have the former without it being yoked to the latter, not because it will automatically free itself from it (naive techno-utopianism), but because it is within our power to free it (and thereby ourselves) if we are willing to acknowledge the possibility and organise to that effect. To quote Alex Williams:

Beyond the economic, political accelerationism seeks to revolutionize the contemporary political Left. Holding that capitalism now constrains the productive forces of technology, directing them towards narrow and often fruitless ends, accelerationism as a political project proposes identifying latent productive forces which must be unleashed against neoliberalism. Rather than working to smash the current capitalist system, the existing infrastructure is here identified as a platform requiring repurposing towards post-capitalist, collective ends. Technology, from this standpoint, is enslaved to myopic capitalist purposes, with the wager being that the real transformative potentials of much scientific and technical research remain untapped. These pre-adaptations may become decisive, but only sociopolitical action is capable of activating them, meaning that technological change alone will remain entirely insufficient to radically alter our world

If there is any essence of left-accelerationism, it is the call to rigorously discriminate between the emancipatory potential of social and industrial technologies that have emerged within capitalism from the oppressive potentials that will inevitably be actualised should we fail to stop them. If technosocial acceleration means dystopia, then this is because we let it, and we have the option not to.

This brings us to the question of who the ‘real’ accelerationists are:

“The real accelerationists aren’t working on dissertations; they’re working at Google or McKinsey or they’re designing the massively open online courses (MOOCs) that are putting grad students out of work. It doesn’t make any more sense to be for technosocial acceleration than against it.”

Harris’ suggestion is that the ‘real’ accelerationists aren’t those theoretically encouraging technosocial acceleration, but those practically enacting it. He can then imply that, because those who are in fact enacting this acceleration are doing so indiscriminately, that those who are encouraging them must be equally indiscriminate. From his perspective, it doesn’t make any sense to be ‘for’ technosocial acceleration, because to do so is essentially tantamount to cheering on Google, McKinsey, and MOOCs, as if discriminating between positive, negative, and contested technosocial developments were simply impossible. There’s two points to make in response to this.

Firstly, there is a pernicious and deeply unhelpful take on the ‘neutrality’ of technology lying in the background here. Of course, because technology (be it social or industrial) can be incorporated into systems of oppression as well as forming the basis of novel forms of emancipation, there is an important sense in which it is ‘neutral’ – one can’t champion any given technological development without a series of qualifications about how it fits into the broader social context. However, there is an important epistemological asymmetry between the potential positive consequences of a technological development and its potential negative consequences: the former are principally a matter of how the technology qua technology expands the space of possible action, or positive freedom considered abstractly, whereas the latter are principally a matter of how the technology qua instrument of power contracts the space of possible action, or negative freedom considered concretely. If you want to understand (and counter) the latter, you need to understand (and exploit) the former. This means that the intrinsic neutrality of technology cannot be used to justify not paying attention to it. Rather, it is what compels us to pay attention to it precisely insofar as it compels us to contest its effects upon the space of freedom. To be ‘for’ technosocial acceleration in this sense is a commitment to the non-trivial enhancement of collective freedom through technological development, not a commitment to naive technological determinism. As far as I’m concerned, this makes more sense than being ‘against’ technosocial acceleration on the basis that technological developments can be oppressively appropriated. The latter attitude is a precautionary principle too far.

Secondly, there is an equally pernicious and unhelpful take on the attitudes of these ‘real accelerationists’ lying in the background. If you think people working in these industries are politically naive simply because they’re working in these industries, then you’re ignoring an interesting and potentially significant political constituency. Sure, there are plenty of naive techno-utopians, crypto-libertarians, and budding neoreactionaries, but there are equally venture-communists, crypto-anarchists, and nascent left-accelerationists too. Some of the most interesting and subtle conversations I’ve had about serious political and social issues have been had with programmers, in no small part because they have no problem about thinking about complex social structures from a design perspective: how do we debug the socius? (the modern form of Veblen’s machine culture). Many of the people in these industries (and others such as the increasingly important field of commercial spaceflight – see Benedict Singleton’s work on ‘actually existing accelerationism’) are in an important sense ‘real accelerationists’ even if they don’t know it yet, precisely because they have an informed and discriminating take upon the relation between society and technology. Nevertheless, we mere theoreticians can provide a useful conceptual bridge between their practical expertise and the philosophical orientation to which they’re already implicitly committed. We should be explicitly engaging with these people, not dismissing them.

So, where is the real disagreement between me and Harris? Well, I think his brief positive prescription at the end gets to the real heart of the difference between his approach and that of left-accelerationism:

“If Marx was right in his more self-assured moments, then we’re nearing the point when it becomes intolerable that all these innovations and efficiencies are hurting more people than they’re helping. We won’t get there any faster by wishing it so or identifying with the process, but in the mean mean meantime, we can prepare. We can undermine capital’s attempts to divide us by cleaving to the underdog every time they try another split. We might even get really good at it.”

The prescription is this: wait, and let capitalism undermine itself. This is a surprisingly common sentiment on the left, and although precisely what the active component of this prescription is supposed to be differs in various ways (e.g., resisting capitalism’s divisiveness, creating the political infrastructure necessary to capitalise upon its inevitable collapse, or developing the skills to simply survive this collapse), the overall orientation is essentially passive (i.e., capitalism will take care of itself). Well fuck that.

I want post-capitalism, thankyou-very-much, and there’s plenty other people like me. The question should not be: when is it going to happen? but: what can we do to make it happen? No doubt this sounds remarkably impatient to those who concern themselves with the grand arc of history, but there is no reason why this attitude need be impatient. I don’t want my post-capitalism right this minute, I want it as soon as possible, and just how soon that is is an open question. Personally, I’m pretty sure I won’t see it in my lifetime, but this doesn’t mean that I’m any less committed to nurturing the seeds of future post-capitalism I see germinating in the capitalist present. The real leftist accelerationist heresy is nothing to do with technology, but consists in the refusal to see the transition between capitalism and post-capitalism as a neat break, or as the emergence of a new order out of the immanent (and often imminent) collapse of the old one. This is not a retreat into reformism, but an insistence upon seeing the end of capitalism as a complex and messy historical transformation of the kind that occurred between feudalism and capitalism – a transformation which can and should be accelerated.

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Appropriate descriptors: (neo)rationalist, left-accelerationist, socratic wanderer, heretical Platonist, computational Kantian, minimalist-Hegelian, heterodox Foucauldian, dialectical insurgent, conceptual mercenary, philosopher of fortune.

8 thoughts on “OftA: So, Accelerationism, what’s all that about?”

  1. This may be excessively nitpicky (apologies if so) but I feel like you engage in a spot of strawmanning of your own here when you refer to “the claim that the increasing self-evidence of capitalist parasitism” and subsequently “a recognition that capitalism will not auto-destruct once the mask slips”. It seems the claim you are implicitly countering is one resting on the becoming-apparent of the truth of capitalism as exploitation somehow impelling the proletariat into taking revolutionary action, which strikes me as perhaps the weakest possible formulation of an automatic breakdown/accelerate the contradictions thesis. I think it’s relatively easy to dismiss the idea that some ‘demystification event’ will produce a spontaneous mass revolutionary consciousness (I think ideology mostly functions without belief, and that most proletarians grasp the essential facts about the nature of capitalism by virtue of having to navigate the structural position that befalls them; if it were simply a question of sufficient numbers grasping that the rich just get richer off the backs of labour [or whatever] this would already be a revolutionary situation, and always would have been). The strong form of this kind of argument situates itself not at the level of appearances and consciousnesses, but of material forces, events, situations, that pose the problem of revolution as one of immediate necessity, right?

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