Against accelerationism, for Marxism

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

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. Continue reading

The future of Enlightenment


Thoughts on
“Universalism and
its discontents”

Last Thursday an online discussion of “Universalism and Its Discontents” took place at noon via livestream. It was the first in what is projected to be a series of conversations on the theme of Fixing the Future, related to some of the problems raised by the accelerationist current. Anthony Paul Smith of the online collective An und für sich and Pete Wolfendale of the blog Deontologistics were the primary discussants, with Deneb Kozikoski playing the role of moderator. Mohammed Salemy was responsible for setting up the event. Video footage of the proceedings can be found here.

What follows are some scattered thoughts in response to it.

Kozikoski’s introduction to the speakers’ opening remarks was, on the whole, extremely helpful. She provided a serviceable overview of debate up to this point, the main issues involved, etc. (and did so in a compact enough manner that even a beginner could follow). I hadn’t kept up with all the literature pertaining to accelerationism myself, so the primer was welcome. Her own editorializing was fairly minimal. She remained evenhanded throughout the subsequent exchange.

To briefly recapitulate her summary: Accelerationism poses a challenge to the prevailing negativity of the contemporary Left, the default logic of both its academic and activist wings. Namely, accelerationists reject the defensive posture of “resistance” struck by leftists when new modes of domination emerge from capitalism’s evolving matrix of creative destruction. By extension, this critique also takes aim at the ideological tendency to simply propose the inverse of whatever deleterious effects are associated with capitalist development — a procedure that could well be called abstract negation. Capitalism is a global phenomenon? If so, anticapitalism must of course counterpose local solutions. Universal, alienating, and abstract? Surely leftists are duty-bound to offer particular, disalienating, and concrete alternatives. Rather than delirious Prometheanism, ruminative Epimetheanism. One could go on.

Against the “folk politics” of localism, direct action, and horizontality that dominate the Left today,1 accelerationists set out to recover the quintessentially modern vision of a global emancipation, working toward “a completion of the Enlightenment project of self-​criticism and self-​mastery, rather than its elimination.”2 They thus reaffirm the emancipatory potential of science and technology, repudiating the dire predictions of Malthusian doomsayers and primitivists. Kozikoski explained that this broader accelerationist drive to embrace forms of universality discarded by poststructuralists and postcolonial theorists in recent decades puts the fledgling movement at odds with these more established discourses.

“Universalism and Its Discontents” staged this specific antagonism, providing a platform for accelerationism and postcolonialism to debate. Wolfendale represented the former of these two schools, while Smith — a postcolonial theologian skeptical of calls for a renewed universalism — represented the latter.

Smith spoke first. He began by announcing his sympathy with much of the accelerationist program, especially as laid out in Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek’s jointly-written article “Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics.” Quoting the Marxian scholar Alberto Toscano, Smith agreed with the accelerationist argument that forces of production can be effectively decoupled from relations of production and made to serve different ends. “[U]se can [still] be drawn from the dead labors which crowd the earth’s crust,” Toscano asserted, “in a world no longer dominated by value.”3 Overcoming capitalism needn’t entail scrapping the productive implements it brought into being, as these can potentially be repurposed or reconfigured. Nor is the manifesto’s emphasis on climate change misplaced, in Smith’s judgment. Indeed, he would appear amenable to many of its theses. Continue reading