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Don’t Mourn, Accelerate

by | August 17, 2015

Among the more popular tropes of science fiction is the skewed timeline hypothesis. The protagonist – most famously in the story ‘The Sound of Thunder’ by Ray Bradbury – unwittingly alters the reality with which the story began, creating an alternate and usually worse version of the universe.

In the example found in Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future 2 the hero, Marty McFly, has to return to 1955 in order to make good the mistake he committed in the (then) future 2015: for in accelerating forward from the alternate 1985 in which he finds himself, Marty would arrive only in the future anterior of a dystopian present.

At the time of writing Back to the Future 2 appears as the surest guide to the strategic impotence of the Left, at least in much of the Anglophone world. Something went wrong at some point in the 1980s, and the wrongness has reproduced itself at an exponential rate for more than thirty years. Most large cities now resemble Hill Valley, the fallen idyll of the movie: run by and for the most vulgar rentiers and propertarians; inflating themselves solely by the manipulation of assets in time; smashing and grabbing and expecting everyone else to be grateful. We’re living the bad timeline of modernity.

The point of divergence is easily identified. It lies, by near common consent, in the resolution of the crisis of the post-war settlement of capital: the long counter-reform or epoch, or ruling class strategy, which has come to be known as neo-liberalism. The dethroning of the idea of a working-class political subject, however, and the associated rejection of any return to a Keynesian era may not be without its silver linings. In the political economy equivalent of Hill Valley, manufacturing capitalists no more ‘deserved’ their profits than does a hedge fund trader. For every family wage there was a woman tied to the demands of social reproduction or a worker of colour mopping the floor of the diner. The co-ordinates should not be set to return to 1955.

Yet the historic premise of Communism as a manifesto, rather than a state of being in common, was nonetheless navigation of a kind. The progressive political projects of the twentieth century relied upon the idea that a different order of things was possible: that it would therefore have to be established in the future and required some kind of schema directed towards an unknown horizon. However circuitous the route, the starting point had to be the actuality of contemporary conditions. Such projects – socialist, communist, even anarchist – involved repurposing and navigation as well as refusal. Whether the envisaged future lay on the other side of revolutionary cataclysm, or at the end of the stodgier process of nationalisation of the commanding heights, it was seen not merely as possible but malleable.

If there is one especially severe deficiency among the many that characterise the Left in the English-speaking world, it is the lack of such a horizon. In the absence of the idea that some future world could be run in a post-capitalist and egalitarian way, anti-capitalism in the present becomes simply a hobby: historical re-enactment or moralism depending upon one’s choice of groupsucle. The Left has come to mirror a world of cultural and political stasis: empty blockbuster reboots, repetitive music trends, and ever more vicious doses of the same neoliberal policies. In this world, who can be blamed for the failure to seize an imaginary future? The crushing and cumulative victory of capital over labour and its associated strata; the consequent leveraging of inequality to absurd levels and the near-certainty of environmental catastrophe make visions of a better future a most degraded currency in which to trade. No plausible candidate has emerged to fill the ideological shoes vacated by the working class movement as historical subject. No force awaits to change the disastrous course. Dreaming of the future, let alone planning to get there faster, seems an unpardonable luxury.

Such is the unacknowledged terrain upon which all strands of the Left – meaning those who have held to the idea that capitalism must be, by whatever means and timescale, transcended rather than appeased – have come to find themselves. Two responses have emerged: those who promote only the future of the past, and those who restrict themselves to the refusal of the present. The former are to be found in the remaining parties that define themselves as ‘Leninist’, foreign as both the word and the associated organisational practice would have been to Ulyanov himself. The approach here is to keep ploughing on in the hope that not only will the bad times change, they will eventually change back to an imagined version of the good times, be they 1972, 1917 or 2003. These groups retain the shell of a strategic purpose: to win hegemony in the wider working class, which will one day seize power through decisive revolutionary action along the lines of October or prefigured in the stymied revolutionary experiences of the twentieth century.

This is a haunted imaginary, and with good reason: the paths not taken in Berlin 1918, Spain 1936, Hungary 1956, France 1968, Greece 1972, Portugal 1974, Poland 1980 – perhaps even Cairo of 2011-12 – seem always too near and too far. The task of the militant is to ensure that when the decisive turning point comes again, there are enough cadres armed with the correct interpretation of these experiences to ensure that the chance is not missed. By steady accumulation of members and/or sudden explosion, a small but correct sect will then become a large and correct party – all previous instances of revolutionary failure deriving from either insufficient size or correctness of line. The coming crisis will not differ essentially from those of the past. The future imagined, and the means by which it is to be reached, is essentially the same as that of the variety of capitalism of (at latest) the late twentieth century, because capitalism is capitalism is capitalism. In the meantime, patient work in the labour movement, building the organisation’s size and apparatus will place the revolutionaries in good stead for the deluge of rising anger or the massive opportunities that will present themselves.

Patience is of course a virtue, and not everything proclaimed to be new really is such. Yet the decreasing size and capacity of the pseudo-Bolsheviks, surely at the root of the splits and degenerations they have undergone, must have something to do with changes in the external world. The life-world to which they are addressed, one of mass-market reformist newspapers with which a revolutionary organ might compete, and the trade union as an every day feature of life for most people, simply no longer exists. They have a plan for the future, but it is the future of the past.

The competitor to the pseudo-Bolsheviks presents a negative image: having adapted to the precarious political economy of post-neoliberal capitalism and the defeat of the labour movement, they turn a necessity into a virtue. Drawing variously and promiscuously on the heritages of anarchism, Left Communism and Italian post-workerism with a dash of the political economy of David Harvey and the philosophical anthropologies of Foucault and Deleuze, this current has outpaced the more avowedly Marxist organisations. Indeed, such positions became the common sense of the social movement upsurges of the two decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union – a reflection, surely, of asking the right questions, if not always providing the right answers. The most well-known exponent of this kind of reticular politics, of course, is Toni Negri, the author of Empire and Multitude. Amongst the harder core, the research of Panzieri, Tronti, the German value-form critique and the English language Endnotes collective are the reference points of choice.

The virtue of this project is the mapping of the contours of contemporary capitalism. Just as the Communist Manifesto hailed the wonders of bourgeois society, so reticular politics refuses to mourn the passing of a powerful labour movement – the basis of that power being, after all an aspect of the continuation of capitalist society. The potential revolutionary subject in this reading lies not in the organised industrial (male, white, well-waged) worker of the past but the precarious knowledge worker and her flows of immaterial labour essential to the working of cognitive capital. The site of struggle lies not in the factory (nor necessarily the workplaces that the old new left assimilate to the factory) but the ‘social factory’ into which all of society has been subsumed. Those whose labour and lives were hitherto merely appended to Left strategy – as in the draft text of a far-Left electoral programme that contained the placeholder ‘something about gays here’ – have become central. No single terrain, such as the point of production, can be identified as the privileged site of struggle. Power is not there to be seized: only to be resisted, refused, evaded or called out.

The accusation sometimes levelled at this latter faction, that of neglect of the political economy of capitalism, is an unjust one. If the exorbitant emphasis on immaterial labour seems to mirror a certain 1990s obsession with the political economy of the ‘creative industries’, and to rely upon an obiter dicta of Marx’s research programme in the Grundrisse rather than the more expansive horizons of Capital, there is nonetheless a basis for the appeal of reticular politics in a congruence of sorts with present conditions. With the potential exception of Belgium, where in the Euro-Atlantic world does anyone feel part of a confident, permanently employed working class whose capacity to run a society is demonstrated by its existing institutions? The central strategic proposal of generalised bohemianism – ‘refusal of work’ – becomes a rather attractive one.

Where the pseudo-Bolsheviks had a plan for an outmoded future, however, the grasp of reticular politics on the present is not accompanied by any specific account of those conditions as the launching point for a post-capitalist world. Indeed, to present such a programme and thereby suggest a relationship where some militants know better than others – or at least have ideas that they impart to those others – is to repeat, in the words of Endnotes, the ‘didactic’ politics of twentieth century movements. This seems a strikingly disingenuous proposition. How is one going to get people to refuse work unless one persuades them that by doing so something better will arise? Is the egalitarian position not rather to present one’s strategy openly to others, trusting that its success depends on whether they take it or leave it? The experience of actually existing revolutions in the period since 2011 surely demonstrates the necessity of some ideological alternative: majorities do not gravitate naturally to anti-hierarchical, anti-capitalist positions. Absent the socially embedded and explicit articulation of such positions, the option of senseless communal bloodletting is the one more often taken up.

In this gap in the leftist market we find Accelerationism. Embodied in Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Manifesto for An Accelerationist Politics, the Accelerationists attempt to recall the original gesture of the Communist Manifesto: to present ideas didactically and to demand a Left that seeks not to ameliorate or resist capitalism but to transcend it on the basis of the tendencies it has itself made possible. In this sense the MAP and its attendant brouhaha are a throwback, not only a throwback to the artistic manifestos of the Modernists – full of eager contempt and the hope to break free of this vile Earth – but to the project of conscious direction toward the future based on the actual tendencies of the present. In this sense, it is a more than timely document, short-circuiting the opposition between the two families of the Left described above. Before the content of this new Accelerationism, it is worth pausing to consider the break marked by the issuing of a manifesto itself.

The movements that followed the economic crisis of 2008 were characterised by two elements in relation to strategy: a hostility to specific demands, and a fetish of democratic form in consensus assemblies, hand gestures and so on. Indeed, as implied by the name of the Spanish movement ‘Real Democracy Now!’ the diffuse, but tangible, ideological point was that if only ‘real democracy’ were brought about society would be transformed. The ideal procedure would bring about the perfect outcome, much as neoclassical economists believe markets clear at perfect prices. The MAP rejects such thinking, presenting post-capitalist transformation as, rather, a programme of social and economic content, one to which democracy would be central but not identical. For good measure, Srnicek and Williams chide their predecessors in Occupy! and elsewhere for the ‘fetishization of openness, horizontality and inclusion’, and remind us that a good dose of ‘secrecy, verticality and exclusion’ is likely to be required in any successful strategy. Democracy, they assert, is not equivalent to its form but to its end of ‘collective self-mastery’ under the ‘legacy of the Enlightenment’. This sort of thing is surely calculated to provoke the deux milles et onzeards, and is good clean fun for all concerned.

But are the Accelerationists anti-capitalist? The main contribution of Srnicek and Williams is simply to restate what once would have been the ABC of a particular kind of Marxism: we stand on the precipice of catastrophe, contradictory tendencies are at work in the mode of production and strategic action is required to ride the crest of one and oppose another. The aim is to transcend capitalism in order to unleash the technological capacities it has created. Revolutionary politics is the means to create a better modernity, rather than just resist a bad one. It is this basic structure that gives the Manifesto its simultaneous sense of scandal and familiarity. The Promethean sensibility it invokes, the ghost of clean limbs, jutting jaw-lines and Suprematist geometry, is political Marmite. Irresistible to some – myself included – it nauseates others. Yet, is Accelerationism as dangerous as it hopes to be? The shadow that lies across the project is precisely of celebration of the world of capital. Every puffed-up frat boy with an app these days considers himself an Accelerationist revolutionary, and racist blow-hards never cease to dribble on about the Enlightenment. Nor is the genetic make-up of the Manifesto free of this Right Acceleration, or what Ben Noys calls ‘Deleuzean Thatcherism’.

Indeed, the philosophical background to Accelerationism lies in Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy and the work of the Warwick Cyber-Culture Research Unit in the early 1990s, especially Nick Land – once Marxist intellectual turned non-dom reactionary. Rather than the network politics usually found in readings of Deleuze and Guattari, Accelerationism takes the view of capitalism as a tesseract of financialised desire, folding and unfolding its own limits into itself. The task might, then, become not to re-ground these flows but rather ‘to go still further …in the movement of the market, of decoding and deterritorialisation…not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to accelerate the process?’ Nick Land, even before his crashingly unoriginal segue rightwards, presented capitalism as the welcome harbinger of the end of ‘anthropoid civilisation’, a Terminator sent back from the future to ensure its own victory.

The writings of the CCRU, and Land in particular, are suffused with the fetishism of a past future. To read their work is to reminisce of a time of long black leather coats, sunglasses worn inside techno clubs and listening to Ed Rush as a transgressive act. Bliss it indeed was in that dawn to be alive, but the overall effect is quaint rather than scandalous. For all that, at least, like Paul Camatte before him, Land knows who is accelerans and what the accelerandum: a matter never fully broached in the Manifesto for Accelerationist Politics. The machine is the subject of history, chewing up the pointless anthropoids inside it, and not before time.

Can one be a true Left Accelerationist, for and against the machine? Toni Negri – whose own work is more Accelerationist than is often acknowledged by his epigones – begins his favourable critique of the Manifesto by restating that ‘within and against’ is the watchword of the Marxist opposition to capital. The phobia of the ‘within’ characterises both the reticular and pseudo-Bolshevik wings of the Left. For the former, the value-form so scars politics that virtually any strategic action serves only to replicate capital. Better to defend ‘activist communities’ and ensure that they prefigure a future that may never come. For the latter, even acknowledgement opens the door to the well-beaten route of apostasy and the accommodations of the 1980s. Somehow, New Times and Living Marxism are permitted to persist as nightmares haunting the brains of the living.

Yet, a crucial fact is being forgotten here: the passage of decades since Friedman-Hayek-Thatcher-Deng thought entranced former Marxists as, at least, something new. If we have not yet passed through the vortex, the danger that Leftists will be persuaded that an acceleration of capitalism is the answer is surely belied by the results of those decades. No serious person – of course, very few of these are employed in bourgeois intellectual circles – can today maintain that more neoliberalism will solve the problems of climate change, or even assure the continued reproduction of the conditions required for capitalism to survive. Not that this stops such policies being pursued with gusto: the point is that they can no longer be seen as the horizon of an unknown and potentially better future.

If we were to sketch out an Acceleration both post- and anti-capitalist, it might begin from the gesture intimated by the MAP: that of rehabilitating programmatic politics, but on the basis of actually existing late late capitalism. This would involve, as the Manifesto demands, a ruthless rejection of the politics of locale and authenticity and a focus on a future decades hence. Technologies, infrastructures and platforms built in the present under the sign of capital need not always be opposed but rather made the necessary objects of seizure, salvage and repurposing. In the world any successful revolution might reasonably inherit, every available resource would have to be strained to rebuild modernity amongst the ruins. The ‘Proletarocene’ will have need of Big Data, genetic modification and logistics. There would be no other way to feed and house the population, unable to obtain protein from the scorched earth or the black, poisoned seas that rise above it. Some people would sometimes have to tell others what to do. The demand to socialise – not destroy – specific companies and infrastructures on this basis would be a working example of ‘within and against.’

Not only this, but there are already tendencies in the present order of things that are covertly celebrated. It has become a truism that neoliberal capitalism, positing the rights of an abstract market individual against inherited practices, has permitted much more progress on ‘social’ questions. Without being ineluctable, inevitable or – given the mutation of racisms old and new under neoliberalism – sufficient, this trend is nonetheless tangible. One should surely make a hearty call for it to be sped-up. Is the desire to abolish the comparative benefits and privileges that constitute ‘whiteness’ not a demand to ‘accelerate the process’? When one seeks the end of gender binaries, and the fluidity not just of constructed identities but the material body, is this not the demand for the maximal acceleration of an existing tendency? The breakdown of fixed identities is not necessarily a route to post-capitalism, nor is it especially a barrier to the operation of capital at all. It may in some cases be profitable. Even so, one might have thought the Left would meet such an accelerated queering with a gusty hurrah, and the demand for more.

Here, of course, the question of ‘within and against’ gets rather thornier, in the question of the agency of all this seizure and re-purposing. Where the traditional standpoint of the ultra-left has been to criticise workers’ organisations as reproducing rather than challenging capital, most especially by their focus on the struggle for wages and employment, the current state of the post-2008 recovery renders the slogans ‘right’ or ‘wrong to work’ rather moot. There is no need to demand the abolition of wage labour: capital is doing that for us already. As the Economist gleefully reports, the so-called sharing economy of Uber, AirBnB and the like is actually a mechanism for maximal precaritisation of labour. It seems like the final Landian victory: no longer the subject-object of history, workers become simply the fleshware of the sales algorithms that chop up their labour into ever smaller chunks, and without even the satisfaction of a boss to hate.

Here too, there may be a chink of a demand glimpsed in the MAP. The Uberisation of everything actually exposes the abstract labour that lies beneath the economy, forcing every struggle to become one of general social reproduction. For example, the most powerful group of workers in most major cities is the public transport unions. Underground trains will, sooner or later become drone-driven. What if the struggle this provoked were not one to preserve the jobs but to preserve the wages, linked to a universal basic income: to say, ‘we will watch the robot trains for an hour a week for the same money we used to get to drive them’? One might have a demand not to abolish labour market apps, but to communise them under general control: an efficient way of co-ordinating needs and abilities. The strike of Uber drivers in New York City – in defence of that refreshingly familiar staple, a skills differential – produced this remarkable statement by Belal, one of the drivers interviewed in Buzzfeed:

The value of Uber, it’s our value. We are Uber. We are the ones who are offering the service. Uber is not doing anything, it’s an application on the phone.

Vroom vroom.

Correction: In previous version of this article, George Lucas was incorrectly described as the director of Back to the Future 2.

French translation of this article is available via Période. To view, click here.