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What is Accelerationism?

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Writing an introduction to accelerationism in 2018 feels a bit odd. In that, were it as pervasive a cultural virus as many of its adherents espoused, it should no longer require an introduction. This seems like some kind of evidence that suggests there’s something lack in the idea itself, at least as it relates to its left-leaning applications. But, this could easily just be an error of my own reading and a matter of where one puts focus. I want to start from 2013, when Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams published #ACCELERATE MANIFESTO for an Accelerationist Politics, a document that was at once an indictment of what they considered to be the limitations of dominant strains of leftist thought, and an attempt to imagine a future that would move us beyond capitalism.

 

Weirdly this image already existed

The year of the manifesto’s release was a point of retrenchment for the left in much of Europe and North America. Occupy had recently come to a resounding fizzle and with the economic order still corrupt and still in place, even after the crash of 2008 that was meant to spell its end. The dominant voices of resistance that remained were those least up to the challenge as it now presented itself: a malignancy, a zombie neoliberalism, characterized by the devouring of all remaining public assets by the market to derive whatever sustenance it could from them, while the effluence resulting from this process accelerated the complete destruction of the environment already well underway. In the face of such a systemic impasse, the two remaining pillars of the left—ecological moralism and those who sought to vehemently enforce a kind of linguistic regulation to correct the foibles of people utterly enmeshed in white supremacist patriarchal techno-capital—proposed no coherent alternative to the status quo. Mark Fisher expressed this situation with hilarious clarity in the essay from 2012, “Terminator vs Avatar”. We were (are still) caught between a rapacious capitalism that will destroy or assimilate everything in its path, and a left that seemed unable to offer anything but an essentialist naturalist nostalgia. Excess toward annihilation vs prohibition for the reinstatement of an imagined order of things past. And while local initiatives continued to struggle against the might of capitalism in areas such as housing and reproductive freedom, there was, and still is, a hard limit to how much these efforts can achieve.

accelerationism is about looking to repurpose what is useful and productive about this rapidly changing world towards the ends of radical democracy, understood as “collective self-mastery”.

Into this malaise came the Srnicek and Williams’ manifesto. A document that espoused and affirmed an orientation towards a future that would be post (after, against, in response and beyond)-capitalism. A future that could be produced through a revolution comprised of building something new in the first instance. The tearing down of the old and oppressive would simply be an epiphenomenon intrinsic to the building of the new. This is not a position against struggle, but a retooling of its tactics. Here, technology is not the inherently oppressive road to alienation but, instead, the only way we can escape drudgery.  

Accelerationism starts from a relatively uncontroversial observation. Things are changing faster than they were before, and seemingly at an accelerating pace. Unsatisfied with the responses of simply resisting these changes, which seems both impossible and undesirable, and unwilling to succumb to the total subsumption of life to the market, the accelerationist manifesto proposes we embrace this increase in speed. Accelerationism is in agreement with Marx on many points, but on one point in particular: the only way to move beyond capitalism is through it.

Contrary to the all-too familiar critique, and even the behaviour of some contemporary Marxians, we must remember that Marx himself used the most advanced theoretical tools and empirical data available in an attempt to fully understand and transform his world. He was not a thinker who resisted modernity, but rather one who sought to analyse and intervene within it, understanding that for all its exploitation and corruption, capitalism remained the most advanced economic system to date. Its gains were not to be reversed, but accelerated beyond the constraints of the capitalist value form. (Srnicek & Williams)

The best fidget spinner the market can provide

It should be made clear here that this is not is the old Leninist idea of “sharpening the contradictions”. It is not about accelerating the mechanisms and exploitations of capitalism to such an extent that its overthrow is the only option left to the people living under it. Such a notion is the result of a latent idealism that makes an ass out of leftist thought. Furthermore, it would be completely at odds with the intellectual milieu from which accelerationism emerged (what is often termed Speculative Realism). Which is to say that the material analysis from which the politics of this project are derived don’t allow for such a flippant injunction to induce suffering on the basis of a gamble. Instead, accelerationism is about looking to repurpose what is useful and productive about this rapidly changing world towards the ends of radical democracy, understood as “collective self-mastery”. Indeed, accelerationism even charges capitalism itself of holding back the creative potential of its own productive capacity. Srnicek and Williams claim that the fickle demands of the market (e.g. fidget spinners & superficially upgraded iphones) combined with the cronyism of political-economy (e.g. quantitative easing and copyright) can be as much an impediment to growth as an engine of it. Against this, they claim;

We want to accelerate the process of technological evolution. But what we are arguing for is not techno-utopianism. Never believe that technology will be sufficient to save us. Necessary, yes, but never sufficient without socio-political action. Technology and the social are intimately bound up with one another, and changes in either potentiate and reinforce changes in the other. Whereas the techno-utopians argue for acceleration on the basis that it will automatically overcome social conflict, our position is that technology should be accelerated precisely because it is needed in order to win social conflicts

[…]

The left must develop socio-technical hegemony: both in the sphere of ideas, and in the sphere of material platforms. Platforms are the infrastructure of global society. They establish the basic parameters of what is possible, both behaviourally and ideologically. In this sense, they embody the material transcendental of society: they are what make possible particular sets of actions, relationships, and powers. While much of the current global platform is biased towards capitalist social relations, this is not an inevitable necessity. These material platforms of production, finance, logistics, and consumption can and will be reprogrammed and reformatted towards post-capitalist ends. (Ibid)

So today, when many on the political left refer to accelerationism, either in praise or derision, it is these ideas to which they are referring. But this is to the full extent of the term’s meaning. The above could be described as left-accelerationism (l/acc in the lingo of who discuss it online), and the line of thinking that produced it does not tend in that direction by necessity.

The sometimes available, acclerationist reader

Shortly after the publication of Srnicek and Williams’ manifesto, Urbanomic, a UK based publisher of contemporary philosophy, in collaboration with the legendary Merve publishing house, released #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader, a collection of essays and extracts that built a field by working both backwards and forwards from this manifesto. In this collection, the combination of works by Marx, Lyotard (a lot from Lyotard actually), Deleuze & Guattari, Firestone and Ballard, this political project was given a history. But the focal point that gives this history coherence is not Srnicek and Williams’ manifesto, which was an attempt to resolve an ambiguity in this concept’s history, but another philosopher who revelled in it, Nick Land. With Land’s work it becomes clear that Srnicek and Williams attempt to brand accelerationism as a political strategy of the left (l/acc) is missing something.   

In the aforementioned essay, Fisher wrote this of his former teacher, Land;

“Land was our Nietzsche – with the same baiting of the so-called progressive tendencies, the same bizarre mixture of the reactionary and the futuristic, and a writing style that updates nineteenth-century aphorisms into what Kodwo Eshun called “text at sample velocity.”

This dramatic phrasing may seem like overblown cyber-theory until we consider what exactly Land’s philosophical project was. Fisher continues;

In a nutshell: Deleuze and Guattari’s machinic desire remorselessly stripped of all Bergsonian vitalism, and made backwards-compatible with Freud’s death drive and Schopenhauer’s Will. The Hegelian-Marxist motor of history is then transplanted into this pulsional nihilism: the idiotic autonomic Will no longer circulating idiotically on the spot, but upgraded into a drive, and guided by a quasi-teleological artificial intelligence attractor that draws terrestrial history over a series of intensive thresholds that have no eschatological point of consummation, and that reach empirical termination only contingently if and when its material substrate burns out. This is Hegelian-Marxist historical materialism inverted: Capital will not be ultimately unmasked as exploited labour power; rather, humans are the meat puppet of Capital, their identities and self-understandings are simulations that can and will be ultimately be sloughed off.

In short, for Land acceleration was not simply a strategy to be embraced or rejected, but a necessary characteristic for any properly ontological definition of Capital and a rigorous understanding of the planet it drives. It is a position that sees Capital less as a corrupting influence on human subjectivity than as something like an agent itself; A virus that has infected humanity for its own ends. Humanity’s continuing role as the host of Capital is evidence only of our continued utility to the processes of acceleration and accumulation. Once this is no longer the case, it is unclear what use Capital will have for us. In a recent text, Land remarks; “Accelerationism is simply the self-awareness of capitalism, which has scarcely begun. (“We haven’t seen anything yet.”)”

The recently reprinted writings of Nick Land

Land’s main objection to Srnicek and Williams’ project is that they produce a false distinction between the technology produced under capitalism and capitalism itself. For Land, this entanglement of technology and capitalism is key to understanding what acceleration, in a social and political sense, means and what it actually produces. Over the last two decades, Land has moved dramatically to the political right, and a while this is not perfectly mapped onto his accelerationist thinking, here we might wish to consider this interpretation alongside the peculiar political projects, such as Neoreaction (NRx, project that was not started by Land) and The Dark Enlightenment, with which Land has been involved. These projects do not seek to address the injustices of capital. Instead, they lean into them. For NRx and The Dark Enlightenment, there are there are certain structures of power, certain hegemonies (a kind of patriarchal, pro-market Western imperialism), that these projects are interested in preserving. Up until now, Capital has left largely these hegemonies intact. Thus, the way certain strands of NRx and The Dark Enlightenment engage with acceleration is in order to ring-fence these hegemonies, while the acceleration of technocapital obliterated the threats to them with all the racist, sexist and anti-democratic implications that entails. While this might seem to be at odds with the radical way in which ever-accelerating Capital production operates, as Srnicek and Williams remind us, this dichotomy is only apparent and not actual.

“…[A]s Deleuze and Guattari recognized, from the very beginning what capitalist speed deterritorializes with one hand, it reterritorializes with the other. Progress becomes constrained within a framework of surplus value, a reserve army of labour, and free-floating capital. Modernity is reduced to statistical measures of economic growth and social innovation becomes encrusted with kitsch remainders from our communal past. Thatcherite-Reaganite deregulation sits comfortably alongside Victorian ‘back-to-basics’ family and religious values.”

In short, if it is more efficient for the mechanism of Capital accumulation to employ something from the old world of value systems and nostalgic ways of making meaning, then the mechanisms will do so. When it is no longer efficient, or if other nostalgias prove more efficient than the cost of changing, Capital will cast them off and move on. This perspective has been called by some right accelerationism (r/acc); despite some real-world symptoms pointing to the possibility of its validity, has lost a certain amount of intellectual traction. If the impediment to left accelerationism is the need to imagine the technologies entangled within capitalism without capitalism, then for right accelerationism, it is perhaps the over-identification of Capital as the agency of acceleration. While the logic that governs the machinations of Capital an in themselves powerful directors of acceleration, they are entangled within the means of production, which for the time being is entangled with human/technology.

the logic of accelerating Capital and the mechanisms that govern it are such that, like lightning searching for the quickest route to the ground, political considerations can no longer be factored into its processes.

This leads to the newest development in the world of accelerationism(s), so-called unconditional accelerationism (u/acc). This position argues that, regardless of which political forces may have produced Capital in the first instance, the acceleration of technocapital (a concept that, while they did not invent it, helps use to think of the driver of acceleration as completely entangled between both capital and the means of production) is a process that must be considered operating below the political. For example, one might consider the attempts by Greece to resist the Troika of European Union institutions by political means. One could have argued that by restructuring, or the writing off of Greek debt could have likely lead to a more prosperous future for both Greece and the EU (economists can debate this). Unfortunately for Greece, the logic of accelerating Capital and the mechanisms that govern it are such that, like lightning searching for the quickest route to the ground, political considerations can no longer be factored into its processes. Politics is thus ordered around this accelerating engine of technocapital and not the other way around. Here, the political projects of both the left and right accelerationism are contextualized against the underlying process of technocapital, which appear to have exceeded discursive intervention. As the Danish translator of the Xenofeminist manifesto, Tobias Ewé, describes it:

To think of Capital as having a political outcome would sound to u/acc as if you were saying that entropy has a political outcome. It might temporarily favour a certain political faction as a side-effect – but it’s not a process that can be fundamentally affected in any particular direction. So maybe it’s better to think of the outcome of Capital’s acceleration not as political, but a diagram of modernity—increased expansion, and the loss of certainty.

The rise of anti-democratic populism in the West may give the appearance that some resistance, albeit a politically horrendous one, to the acceleration of technocapital has been mounted. But, taking into account the continued privatization of public resources, the increasing saturation of platform capitalism, the spreading of employment precarity, and the ever-increasing capitalism of China, this populism is perhaps better considered a symptom of deterritorialization than any kind of counter to capital. As I mentioned at the beginning, there is something odd about writing an explainer about an idea that was meant to have virulently caught on years ago. But this is a problem for the left accelerationist project. One that the right variant does not have to endure and which an unconditional interpretation doesn’t even register. The left position on acceleration requires extra energy to be expended to instigate a split between capital expansion and technological development. It requires an aesthetics that can if only in the negative, make us aware of the insufficiency of the status quo. It requires a politics that can grapple with the implications for humanism and somehow reign in a force best analogized with entropy. And it requires a concept of justice that is not finally numerical. We can see strands of these necessary discourses and practices emerging in fields such as Xenofeminism, Afrofuturism 2.0 and Prometheanism. But the question remains, can these efforts be mobilized to direct the movement effectively? Since on some level, this is a numbers game because, as Steven Shaviro puts it, “like it or not—we are all accelerationists now”, and teams are forming.

 

Special thanks to Tobias Ewé for his help and advice in putting this piece together. To the extent this document is accurate it is his doing, the errors are the author’s. 

Macon has spent the last four years trying to shoehorn Infinite Jest into a PhD about popular music and capitalism. He managed to do this by making it about something called sonic fiction. He is one half of the podcasting team and the reason why the critical theory section is an odd mix of Adorno and Deleuze & Guattari. For many months he was mistaken for a ghost that had decided to haunt the store, but it was just him editing his thesis and/or the podcast. Here he writes about things which might be true or are entirely made up.

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