Against accelerationism, for Marxism

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In­tro­duct­ory note

I re­pro­duce here a short post by my friend Re­id Kane cri­tiquing the fun­da­ment­al premises of “left ac­cel­er­a­tion­ism.” For those un­fa­mil­i­ar with this the­or­et­ic­al form­a­tion, I ad­vise they check out #Ac­cel­er­ate: An Ac­cel­er­a­tion­ist Read­er, which presents its self-se­lec­ted ante­cedents as well as some ori­gin­al ma­ter­i­als writ­ten by pro­ponents of the move­ment. Ben­jamin Noys’ book Ma­lign Ve­lo­cit­ies, which is brief but quite good, is also worth look­ing in­to for any­one seek­ing a more crit­ic­al per­spect­ive. McK­en­zie Wark, Ant­o­nio Negri, and nu­mer­ous oth­ers have writ­ten re­sponses as well. A few months back I sum­mar­ized a de­bate between Peter Wolfend­ale and An­thony Paul Smith and ad­ded some of my own thoughts on “The Fu­ture of En­light­en­ment.” Then later I wrote a bit de­fend­ing the Pro­methean as­pect of Marx’s thought, “Against In­ad­vert­ent Cli­mate Change.”

My only oth­er re­mark re­gard­ing Re­id’s piece is that it is use­fully sup­ple­men­ted by an­oth­er short doc­u­ment, this time by Karl Marx. His “Speech on the Tenth An­niversary of the People’s Pa­per is avail­able at the Marx­ists in­ter­net archive, and is to my mind the most con­cise sum­mary of Marx’s con­tri­bu­tion to polit­ic­al thought out­side of the Mani­festo. In it, he un­leashes a series of com­pact dia­lect­ic­al in­ver­sions that cap­ture the am­bi­val­ence of cap­it­al­ist de­vel­op­ment that Re­id is driv­ing at. An ad­um­brated ver­sion of its main points ap­pears be­low:

The so-called re­volu­tions of 1848 were but poor in­cid­ents — small frac­tures and fis­sures in the dry crust of European so­ci­ety. However, they de­nounced the abyss. Be­neath the ap­par­ently sol­id sur­face, they be­trayed oceans of li­quid mat­ter, only need­ing ex­pan­sion to rend in­to frag­ments con­tin­ents of hard rock. Nois­ily and con­fusedly they pro­claimed the eman­cip­a­tion of the pro­let­ari­an, i.e. the secret of the nine­teenth cen­tury, and of the re­volu­tion of that cen­tury.

That so­cial re­volu­tion, it is true, was no nov­elty in­ven­ted in 1848. Steam, elec­tri­city, and the self-act­ing mule were re­volu­tion­ists of a rather more dan­ger­ous char­ac­ter than even cit­izens Barbés, Raspail, and Blan­qui…On the one hand, there have star­ted in­to life in­dus­tri­al and sci­entif­ic forces, which no epoch of the former hu­man his­tory had ever sus­pec­ted. On the oth­er hand, there ex­ist symp­toms of de­cay, far sur­pass­ing the hor­rors re­cor­ded of the lat­ter times of the Ro­man Em­pire. In our days, everything seems preg­nant with its con­trary: Ma­chinery, gif­ted with the won­der­ful power of short­en­ing and fructi­fy­ing hu­man labor, we be­hold starving and over­work­ing it; the new­fangled sources of wealth, by some strange weird spell, are turned in­to sources of want; The vic­tor­ies of art seem bought by the loss of char­ac­ter.

At the same pace that man­kind mas­ters nature, man seems to be­come en­slaved to oth­er men or to his own in­famy. Even the pure light of sci­ence seems un­able to shine but on the dark back­ground of ig­nor­ance. All our in­ven­tion and pro­gress seem to res­ult in en­dow­ing ma­ter­i­al forces with in­tel­lec­tu­al life, and in stul­ti­fy­ing hu­man life in­to a ma­ter­i­al force.

This ant­ag­on­ism between mod­ern in­dustry and sci­ence on the one hand, mod­ern misery and dis­sol­u­tion on the oth­er hand; this ant­ag­on­ism between the pro­duct­ive powers and the so­cial re­la­tions of our epoch is a fact, palp­able, over­whelm­ing, and not to be con­tro­ver­ted. Some parties may wail over it; oth­ers may wish to get rid of mod­ern arts, in or­der to get rid of mod­ern con­flicts. Or they may ima­gine that so sig­nal a pro­gress in in­dustry wants to be com­pleted by as sig­nal a re­gress in polit­ics. On our part, we do not mis­take the shape of the shrewd spir­it that con­tin­ues to mark all these con­tra­dic­tions. We know that to work well the new­fangled forces of so­ci­ety, they only want to be mastered by new­fangled men — and such are the work­ing men. They are as much the in­ven­tion of mod­ern time as ma­chinery it­self.

His­tory is the judge. Its ex­e­cu­tion­er, the pro­let­ari­an.

En­joy Re­id’s art­icle, along with some im­ages from pro­duc­tions of the Czech play­wright Karel Čapek’s RUR (or Ros­sum’s Uni­ver­sal Ro­bots).

Against ac­cel­er­a­tion­ism, for Marx­ism

Re­id Kane

Reb­logged from bar­bar­ie della re­flessione

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To the ex­tent that left ac­cel­er­a­tion­ists draw upon Marx, they are re­flect­ing Marx’s re­cog­ni­tion of the pos­it­ive his­tor­ic­al role cap­it­al­ism can and must play, spe­cific­ally in its ca­pa­city to de­vel­op the forces of pro­duc­tion, in­creas­ing in­tens­ively and ex­tens­ively the pro­ductiv­ity of hu­man activ­ity.

Yet in­so­far as they re­ject the dia­lectic, they lose Marx’s cru­cial polit­ic­al in­sight. This de­vel­op­ment­al dy­nam­ic is in­tim­ately tied to the struggle of the work­ing class to in­crease value of its labor power, and thus to di­min­ish the need to work. Yet tech­no­logy is em­ployed not to eman­cip­ate the work­er from the need to work, but from the op­por­tun­ity to do so, and thus to eman­cip­ate the cap­it­al­ist from the work­er. It is em­ployed in or­der to drive down the value of labor power, pre­cisely to the point at which their labor-power be­comes cheap­er than “labor-sav­ing” al­tern­at­ives.

In oth­er words, the de­vel­op­ment of the pro­duct­ive forces comes in­to con­flict with the ex­ist­ing re­la­tions of pro­duc­tion. Wage work­ers, dis­placed by ma­chinery, are pro­let­ari­an­ized, de­prived of ac­cess to the means of sub­sist­ence they col­lect­ively pro­duce.

It was pre­cisely this tend­ency that Marx saw “ac­cel­er­at­ing” with the com­ple­tion of the bour­geois re­volu­tions. Yet he did not ad­voc­ate it simply be­cause it led to tech­no­lo­gic­al ad­vance­ment, but be­cause it forced the pro­let­ari­at to or­gan­ize it­self to me­di­ate the depriva­tion they faced. As the pop­u­la­tion threatened with and af­flic­ted by pro­let­ari­an­iz­a­tion would grow in pro­por­tion to in­dustry, the or­gan­iz­a­tions of the pro­let­ari­at would be forced to ex­press the com­mon in­terests of the “im­mense ma­jor­ity” of the pop­u­la­tion “without dis­tinc­tion of sex or race,” and to face the pos­sib­il­ity, and the need, of tak­ing polit­ic­al power. These in­terests would co­in­cide in the ab­ol­i­tion of private prop­erty in the means of pro­duc­tion, which would be ap­pro­pri­ated by the pro­let­ari­an dic­tat­or­ship and ap­plied for the com­mon be­ne­fit of all.

In oth­er words, the ac­cel­er­a­tion of the de­vel­op­ment of pro­duct­ive forces (or “tech­no­logy”) un­der cap­it­al­ism cre­ates a po­ten­tial for eman­cip­a­tion that mani­fests neg­at­ively — free­dom from any means of pro­duc­tion of their own — as a prob­lem that can only be solved polit­ic­ally.

“Ac­cel­er­a­tion” is am­bi­val­ent; it is re­gress­ive in that it is the mech­an­ism by which the con­di­tions of the work­ing class are forced down­wards, but pro­gress­ive to the ex­tent that this is me­di­ated by polit­ic­al rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion. The lat­ter can be headed off by com­prom­ises that di­vide the pro­let­ari­at in dif­fer­ent ways (between na­tions, or with­in na­tions on the basis of race, gender, na­tion­al­ity), but in the end de­pend­ence on the bour­geois­ie for con­ces­sions will un­der­mine the im­petus for in­de­pend­ent pro­let­ari­an or­gan­iz­a­tions, which erode, in turn un­der­min­ing the bour­geois­ie’s im­petus to keep those con­ces­sions in place. And so those ele­ments of the work­ing class sus­pen­ded in the middle strata fall back in­to the pro­let­ari­at (e.g. “neo­lib­er­al­ism”).

To the ex­tent that the ac­cel­er­a­tion­ists are call­ing for re­forms (most not­ably, uni­ver­sal ba­sic in­come) that would sub­sid­ize the pro­let­ari­an con­di­tion, they would un­der­mine the very source of the pro­gress­ive dy­nam­ic that Marx sought to “ac­cel­er­ate” — not the ad­vance­ment of tech­no­logy, but the ad­vance­ment of the or­gan­iz­a­tion­al and polit­ic­al de­vel­op­ment of the work­ing class. Who, after all, would pass such a re­form? What polit­ic­al agency has, or could have, the motive and the ca­pa­city to do so? In the con­text of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety, such a re­form would only be a meas­ure of polit­ic­al war­fare — not against the work­ing people, but against the work­ing class as self-con­sciously or­gan­ized.

Against Ac­cel­er­a­tion­ism – For Marx­ism.

7 thoughts on “Against accelerationism, for Marxism

  1. This is how I’ve felt about the demand for UBI for a while. If it were to happen it would happen to forestall any kind of organising. It’ll be in place to keep unemployed workers passive. Still, if mass technological unemployment occurs then UBI becomes a necessary demand for survival, no? For the capitalists it keeps the workers placid- those who don’t die of starvation- and for the workers it allows continued subsistence.

    One of my basic problems with accelerationism is what we could call the assumption of accelerative stasis. So far the accelerationists don’t seem to have given much head to the multiple and extremely uneven catastrophic developments that are already unfolding right now. I think nick srnicek is looking into answers to ecological problems, but to this point I’ve seen not very much engagement with what looks to be an increasingly turbulent future. The problems generated by climate change and resource depletion, even given the potential for a safe geoengineering project or asteroid mining or a solarpunk futurism, are set to make a the future radically different to the present. The idea of accelerative stasis is an attempt to concisely state the problems explored in a text called Desert (link below) that can basically be summed up as: the radically different future will be continuous with the present.

    If this is fair, I could be (and hopefully am) well off the mark, then the speculative futurism of left accelerationism presupposes that the geographic, political, economic, and above all, existential coordinates of the future will remain coherent with those of today. Except that already we’re witnessing dissolutions in those coordinates, and along with it a remapping of the socio-political and existential worlds.

    The unfolding catastrophes will imprint us all with their traumas; the assumptive world isn’t going to survive unscathed

  2. Yes, though even under capitalism, even in recent times, there is actual progress in the material culture with positive results for the greater mass of the population. To deny that would simply not to know the world.

  3. To the extent that the accelerationists are calling for reforms (most notably, universal basic income) that would subsidize the proletarian condition, they would undermine the very source of the progressive dynamic that Marx sought to “accelerate” — not the advancement of technology, but the advancement of the organizational and political development of the working class.

    How does Red Pimple imagine the wurking classes could advance organizationally and politically WITHOUT technology???

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