Accelerationism Without Accelerationism

Here is my review of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ INVENTING THE FUTURE. Cross-posted from The Disorder of Things.

The term accelerationism was coined by Benjamin Noys in 2010, in order to designate a political position that he rejected. In Noys’ account, accelerationism is the idea that things have to get worse before they can get better. The only way out of capitalism is the way through. The more abstract, violent, inhuman, contradictory, and destructive capitalism becomes, the closer it gets to tearing itself apart. Such a vision derives, ultimately, from the famous account of capitalism’s inherent dynamism in the Communist Manifesto. For Marx and Engels, capitalism is characterized by “constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation… All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” Far from deploring such developments, Marx and Engels see them as necessary preconditions for the overthrow of capitalism itself.

The trouble with accelerationism, according to Noys, is that it celebrates “uncertainty and agitation” as revolutionary in its own right. It doesn’t have any vision of a future beyond disruption. In the 1970s, Deleuze and Guattari suggest that we need, not to withdraw from capitalism, but “to go still further… in the movement of the market, of decoding and deterritorialization,” At the same time, Jean-Francois Lyotard exults over capitalism’s “insane pulsions” and “mutant intensities.” By the 1990s, Nick Land ecstatically anticipates the dissolution of humanity, as the result of “an invasion from the future” by the “cyberpositively escalating technovirus” of finance capital. Today, transhumanists see Bitcoin, derivatives, algorithmic trading, and artificial intelligence as tools for destroying the social order altogether, and for freeing themselves from the limits of the State, of collectivity, and even of mortality and finitude. This is what happens when “creative destruction” — as Joseph Schumpeter calls it, in his right-wing appropriation of Marx — is valued in and of itself.

In 2013, responding to all these currents, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams published their “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics.” In this text, they seek to reclaim accelerationism as a genuine project for the left — one that can pick up the tools of capitalist modernity, and detourn them to liberatory ends. This is not a matter of celebrating disruption for its own sake; Srnicek and Williams emphatically reject Nick Land’s “myopic yet hypnotising belief that capitalist speed alone could generate a global transition towards unparalleled technological singularity.” Instead, Srnicek and Williams return to Marx’s own suggestion that

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.

The new technologies — digital and otherwise — of the last several decades are currently straining against the “fetters” of the very system that initially produced them. Information streams are censored and crippled as a result of so-called “intellectual property” laws; companies like Apple and Google appropriate the profits resulting from research that was conducted at public expense. The automation and robotization of so many jobs leads, not to comfort and liberation from toil, but to precarity and dispossession.

Srnicek and Williams argue in their manifesto that we need to adapt these new technologies for emancipatory ends, rather than resisting and opposing them. They argue for a future-oriented left politics, “at ease with a modernity of abstraction, complexity, globality, and technology.” They suggest that we should seek, not to restrain, but rather to “unleash latent productive forces.” They even call for a “Promethean politics of maximal mastery over society and its environment.” We might say that Srnicek and Williams’ accelerationism stands in relation to that of Nick Land much as early Soviet Constructivism stood in relation to Italian Futurism.

Srnicek and Williams’ important new book, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, offers a full-length expansion of the program that was first outlined in their manifesto. The most surprising thing about the book, however, is that the actual word “accelerationism” scarcely appears anywhere within it. As the authors explain in an endnote,

We largely avoid using the term ‘accelerationism’ in this work, due to the miasma of competing understandings that has risen around the concept, rather than from any abdication of its tenets as we understand them.

What this means, in practice, is that Srnicek and Williams’ ideas are removed from the incendiary context in which they were first proposed. Though the actual program of Inventing the Future is much the same as that of the manifesto, the change in rhetoric makes for a substantial difference. Without the expressive urgency connoted both by the word “accelerationism,” and the hyperbole that is basic to the manifesto as a genre, Srnicek and Williams’ proposals seem — well, they seem downright moderate and reasonable.

The authors start the book by offering a (mostly) comradely critique of the left’s recent predilection for “horizontalist” modes of organization, for privileging local concerns over global ones, for avoiding any explicit list of demands, and for direct democracy and spontaneous direct action. All these have been prominent features of the Occupy movement and other recent protest actions. But Srnicek and Williams argue that these tactics “do not scale.” They may work well enough in particular instances, but they are not of much help when it comes to building a larger and longer-enduring oppositional movement, one that could actually work towards changing our basic conditions of life.

This line of argument seems irrefutable to me — although it will likely irritate large segments of the book’s potential audience, particularly those whose general orientation is anarchist rather than Marxist. It is not just a question of organizational work — something that, admittedly, I have never done much of, myself — but also of orientation and basic vision. Local and horizontal political tactics are incomplete in themselves; they need to be supplemented by more global, or universal, modes of action and concern.

Unfortunately, Srnicek and Williams do not do themselves any favors when they characterize localist and horizontal tactics as “folk politics.” Such an appellation is deeply condescending. It is derived by analogy from “folk psychology,” the sneering term with which reductionist philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists refer to our common-sense beliefs and intuitions about ourselves. I entirely agree with the cognitivists that there is a lot going on in our minds that is not directly accessible to conscious awareness. But this need not entail that, as Paul Churchland notoriously put it, “our common-sense conception of psychological phenomena constitutes a radically false theory,” so that things like beliefs and desires don’t really even exist. The same holds for “folk politics” as for “folk psychology.” Pointing out the incompleteness of a mode of understanding is one thing; but dismissing it as entirely false and delusional is quite another. Srnicek and Williams convincingly argue that we need a more expansive, and more fully imaginative, form of both action and theorization; but they could well have pointed this out without the contempt and disparagement implied by the term “folk politics.”

In any case, after the opening chapters devoted to “the negative task of diagnosing the strategic limitations of the contemporary left,” Srnicek and Williams turn to the positive project of spelling out an alternative. This is where they do indeed make accelerationist proposals, while avoiding the needlessly provocative (one might even say “infantile leftist”) connotations that the term has taken on in recent years. They suggest, first of all, that the left needs to reclaim the mantle of modernism (the attitude) and modernity (the process) that it held for much of the twentieth century. This means, among other things, embracing and detourning new technologies, and finding a new sort of universalism that includes all the many local needs and forms of struggle, bringing them together without erasing their concrete particulars. (Here I wish that they had given consideration to something like Gilbert Simondon’s notions of transversality and transindividuality — for a discussion of which, in terms of left politics, see Jason Read’s new book The Politics of Transindividuality).

Beyond this, Srnicek and Williams analyze the ways that new technologies are transforming capitalism. They focus particularly on the ways that computerization and robotics are making more and more jobs redundant — without producing new sorts of jobs to replace them, as was the case in earlier waves of automation. We are standing on the verge of a “post-work world.” Given this situation, they suggest four basic demands around which the left can and should unite:

  1. Full automation
  2. The reduction of the working week
  3. The provision of a basic income
  4. The diminishment of the work ethic.

It is not that these demands will solve all problems; obviously they fail to address racism, sexism, and many other pressing needs. I myself would want to add a fifth demand to the list: the right of migration, and abolition of borders. But even without this addition, I think that the demands listed by Srnicek and Williams do indeed make sense as a “minimal” program. For one thing, they would establish the material conditions — freedom from hunger, homelessness, and other forms of severe want — under which racism and sexism could be more forcefully addressed and opposed than is the case today. For another thing, although these demands are in themselves concrete and attainable — as the world today is wealthy enough, and technologically advanced enough, to realize them — their fulfillment would require massive economic, social, and political transformations: ones that would take us beyond the limits of capitalism as it actually exists today.

Even if the left is able to unite around this series of demands, actually attaining them will remain a difficult task. Srnicek and Williams sensibly note that

the power of the left — broadly construed — needs to be rebuilt before a post-work society can become a meaningful strategic option. This will involve a broad counter-hegemonic project that seeks to overturn neoliberal common sense and to rearticulate new understandings of ‘modernisation’, ‘work’ and ‘freedom’.

Along these lines, they offer a number of concrete proposals, most of them good. They remind us, especially, that we cannot hope for immediate results, but need to play a long game. This is not a matter of the old debate between “reform” and “revolution” — an alternative that is now outdated. Rather, it means that a lot of things need to be changed on the ground in order for a massive economic and political transformation to be possible.

To illustrate this, Srnicek and Williams follow Philip Mirowski in tracing the history of the “neoliberal thought collective,” as it moved from a fringe group just after World War II to the dominant ideological force in the world after 1980. I have mixed feelings about this example, however. The story of neoliberalism’s triumph does indeed demonstrate the virtues of patience, cunning, keeping an eye on the long term, and understanding that the “common sense” of the broader society needs to change if policies are to change. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have a “Mont Pelerin of the left,” concerned with more than immediate results. But the long-term success of the neoliberals has a lot to do with their access to money and to organs of public opinion. The capitalist class may well have accepted the Keynesian compromise in the post-War period, but they were always amenable to a new formation that would only increase their wealth, power, and influence. Ideological hegemony is a form of class struggle by different means. A left counter-hegemonic project will never be able to command the sorts of resources that the neoliberals had, as the moved from the margins to the center of policy-making.

The larger point here is that, as Fredric Jameson once put it,

It has often been lamented that Marxism seems to be a purely economic theory, which makes little place for a properly Marxian political theory. I believe that this is the strength of Marxism, and that political theory and political philosophy are always epiphenomenal. Politics should be the affair of an ever-vigilant opportunism, but not of any theory or philosophy; and even the current efforts to redefine mass democracy in this way or that are, to my mind, distractions from the central issue which is the nature and structure of capitalism itself. There can never be satisfactory political solutions or systems; but there can be better economic ones, and Marxists and leftists need to concentrate on those.

This doesn’t mean that politics can be ignored; the task of making a better economic order will always require deep political engagement. And Srnicek and Williams’ economic analysis of the material conditions for a “post-work” economy is quite good. But it still remains that they — like nearly all “Western Marxists” over the course of the past century — are a bit too quick in making the leap from economic matters to political ones.

Still, I don’t want to end my comments on such a negative note. The greatest strength of Inventing the Future, to my mind, is that it does indeed turn our attention towards the future, instead of the past. A big problem for the left today is that we have too long been stuck in the backward-looking, defensive project of trying to rescue whatever might be left of the mid-twentieth-century welfare state. While it is perfectly reasonable to lament our loss of the safety net that was provided by mid-twentieth-century social democracy, the restoration of those benefits is not enough to fuel a radical economic and political program. Looking nostalgically towards the past is far too deeply ingrained in our habits of thought. We need to reclaim our sense of the future from Silicon Valley and Hollywood. As Srnicek and Williams put it at the very end of their book,

Rather than settling for marginal improvements in battery life and computing power, the left should mobilize dreams of decarbonizing the economy, space travel, robot economies — all the traditional touchstones of science fiction — in order to prepare for a day beyond capitalism.

Post-capitalism (or better, communism — to use another word that is absent from this book) today has only a science fictional status. It’s a hidden potentiality that somehow still manages — just barely — to haunt the neoliberal endless present. Our rulers have been unable to exorcise this potential completely; but thus far we have been equally unable to endow it with any sort of substantiality or persistence. Inventing the Future looks beyond this impasse, to extrapolate (as all good science fiction does) a future that might actually be livable. This is its virtue and its importance.