CapitalismLetters

Accelerationism

There’s a lively debate going on about ‘accelerationism’. As Reza Negarastani has suggested, it might be a way in which big picture speculative thought about historical circumstances has returned after the decline of Marxism. It began with the somewhat hallucinated texts of Nick Land, which saw capitalism as a sort of alien species invading human time from the future. Land’s texts are a sort of clinging to the fuselage of ‘late’ capitalism as it accelerates toward an alien becoming, where capital and tech supplant the human as a new mode of being.

Land at his best was our Rimbaud, our Artaud, our Chtcheglov, and needless to say such a visionary writer has at once attracted a certain fascination and also some strong denunciations. Benjamin Noys coined the term ‘accelerationism’ to cover both Land and other writers who take off from Deleuze and Guattari into a kind of historical thought without negation, where capital mutates into something else out of its own affirmative workings. The writing of Hardt and Negri might also be considered ‘accelerationist’ in this sense.

Personally, I find any speculative historical thought to be of interest, particularly at a time when capital-H-History has been considered off limits. My books of the last decade, A Hacker Manifesto (2004) and Gamer Theory (2007), were ‘accelerationist’ avant-la-lettre. Hence I welcomed the chance to revisit the positions of those earlier books in response to the ‘#Accelerate’ text by Alec Williams and Nick Srnicek, and at a recent forum organized by Gean Moreno in response to the excellent issue of e-flux he edited on Accelerationism. My contribution to that forum is here, and you can read the contribution by Steven Shaviro here.

 

Cruise Control

McKenzie Wark

01. Its striking that most ideas about accelerationism – pro and con – assume that capitalism is always more or less the same thing. It can affirm itself, speeding up, becoming something else in the future. Or it can be negated, overthrown by something else. But capitalism itself always seems to be the same thing.

02. But is it? Is this still capitalism? What if it was something worse? As I have argued elsewhere, we could imagine the commodity economy passing through three stages already: the enclosure of land, the mass production of the thing, and the commodification of information. Each stage is a distinct private property form, producing a successive polarization of classes, of owners and non-owners.

03. The transformative possibilities change with each stage of development of the property form. Land enclosure produced reactive and utopian peasant resistance. The mass production of the thing as commodity produced both the radical and reformist labor movements. The new forms of exploitation layered on top of these ongoing ones is producing new kinds of contestation and accommodation.

04. The new stage of commodification is less about extracting surplus value from labor as extracting surplus information from play. It extracts value by offering information for free, but extracting more information in return – surplus information.

05. But this new form of the commodity economy does not go unchallenged. The counter-currents it produces may not however be adequately captured by the category of ‘politics’. Maybe the struggle is, as Bogdanov would say, between commodification and the possibility of better forms of organization. The problem of organization is at once one of resources, techniques, human and inhuman forces, affect and information.

06. Is it not strange that so much of what was once forward-looking leftist discourse is now longing for the past? It wants its October a second time. Or: It wants a Christ-Lenin-messiah. It wants leaps and events. It wants an autonomous sphere of political action at a time when any such autonomous domain seems clearly not to exist. The problem of modes of organization must be posed again, and outside the domain of political theory.

07. Of course political theory is preferable to the apolitical theory that caved in to the language of ‘there is no alternative’. But our alternatives must be based on an analysis of current forms of commodity relation, not on ahistorical, philosophical understandings of eternal capitalism. We must restart what Castoriadis called the imaginary institution, by which organization finds the phase changes implied in its own form.

08. By their rhetoric you shall know them. The talk these days is of disruption, creation, destruction. The old language of the avant gardes and revolutionaries is now the province of Silicon valley publicists. So we need a careful analysis of that language – and we need a new avant garde. Its clear that this is a commodity economy busy cannibalizing its own means of subsistence. It has run out of ideas. The task of the neo-liberal state is to destroy the social so that it may be commodified, even though this will result in less efficient and effective forms of organization. So: let there be iPads in the charter schools! The result will be less effective, and more expensive, which is of course the goal.

09. The ruling class of our time is a rentier class. It is not actually innovative and disruptive. It is not accelerating anything. Technical innovation pushed commodification onto a new, more abstract plane, that of information. But the plan is mostly to rope off and sustain quasi-monopoly rent seeking behavior in those domains. The ruling class of our time – what I call the vectoral class – wants information to be a mode of organizational control, not really of ‘innovation.’

10. The challenge to this baroque order is entirely within its relation to its material conditions of existence, at the base of the stack. Negation always comes from below. There is no negation from above. There is no other domain of absolute alterity which will rend judgment against Gomorrah. There is no communism as avenging angel of pure universal equality. There is no absurdist leap into the unknown. What calls the vectoral class to account is the now systematic quality of its own disorganization. First but not last on the list: ever rising levels of atmospheric carbon. What will spark a disruption is a leap in food prices, not philosophy or art.

11. The commodity economy is not what Althusser called an ‘expressive totality’, infecting any and everything with its poison touch. It isn’t everything. It isn’t even all capitalism, but rather a heterogeneous mix of commodity and non-commodity organizational modes. The commodity forms themselves also differentiate into at least three historical forms, making land, capital and then information into forms of private property. Since capitalism is not a totality its negation is not total either. One needs a language of organization that is both more abstract and more specific, which articulates together heterogeneous forms and goals. In this respect at least the legacy of Laclau, Mouffe and Stuart Hall is still with us.

12. Critics of accelerationism might say that I too lack faith in a total negation. Yes, indeed. But this clears away what Debord called the “silly chatter of optimism” and opens the space of strategic thinking. The most difficult thing for any organizational thinker is to organize the orderly retreat. In many respects orderly retreat might be our task at the moment. Which is not to say one lets go of utopian imagining, even if it is the queer cosmos of Charles Fourier to which one turns rather than the exterminating angels of Saint Paul.

13. So a qualified accelerationism, then. One which does not accept that capitalism is either ahistorical, or that its acceleration is actually ‘progress.’ But which does not put too much faith in the past or in a mystical other. The challenge is to do better with the various infrastructures to hand in organizing the world.

14. There is a certain charm to the language of what EP Thompson called exterminism. After two millennia of failure as the abstract thought of a human centered world, perhaps philosophy could simply skip that part and become the thought of a world without us. But perhaps the problem is not with correlationist philosophies but with philosophy tout court. If the philosophers were going to save us they would have done so already. Its time for quite different kinds of organization of thought in other webs of relation to the world. The problem of thought is an organizational one. Let us be done with the spectacle of master thinkers.

15. There’s no going back, then. We need a new temporal jazz connecting pasts-presents-futures. But let’s think in a more plural fashion with those actual others who think that temporal jazz. Let’s put accelerationism together with the afrofuturism of Kodwo Eshun, the gender de-engineering of Beatriz Preciado, the techno-feminism of the late Shulamith Firestone and many others. Let’s try to think at scale again, and with a certain historical legato. Certain accelerationist comrades have resorted to rather shopworn modes of abstracting from differences. We need rather a new kind of abstraction, one which does not flatten such differences by simply reasserting the old patriarchal norms. Asking dad to plan a future for us isn’t going to fly. There can be no large-scale planning base on an abstracted rationality of the old type. Infrastructure hence forth has to be a big mesh of little things rather than a little mesh of big things. We have so destabilized the bedrock on which infrastructure rests that it is becoming increasingly failure-prone.

16. But accelerationists like Williams and Srnicek are right to ask that we think at scale again. The enemy certainly is. Philip Mirowski has given us their plan: first, lie about the reality of climate change for as long as it will work. Second, cap and trade to create a new market without changing the commodity form. Third, geo-engineering to counter-act the effects of atmospheric carbon without reducing emissions. Their solution, in short, is more and more of what ails us. There is nothing that they won’t sacrifice to private property, including life itself.

17. Biopower is not the state’s primary object. Yes, states are arming themselves against their own populations; states are conducting surveillance of their entire populations. But what this means is that the state is preparing to defend property against us, if necessary. Which is after all the first and last mission of the state. You can smell the fear. This is a ruling class that, in its quiet moments, knows it has failed its historical task and is preparing for the worst.

18. Our task then is the hardest one: orderly retreat. Even if this bankrupt and enervated form of organization based on commodification were to disappear tomorrow, the material conditions of existence are still against us. If you want a past historical hook, its not the storming of the Bastille, it’s the retreat from Moscow. Let’s have done with the Jacobin model of politics, that invariant center of all Francophile theories of action. If one must stick with a francocentric world, let’s read Clausewitz or Fourier, who flank it on either side, and displace action from an imagined political to more infrastructural questions.

19. Can we build on the weak power of weak social links? Can the boredom, indifference, opacity and ambivalence of abstracted sociality become a positive force? Can we be datapunks? Here’s three gigabytes, go form your own society! Can we be metapunks? Can we manage our own metadata, and build transversal organizations in the shadows of the proper channels? Can we be a vast and anonymous support group for those who are prepared to put their bodies in front of pipelines? Can we be infrapunks, builders of tiny bits of a the structure of another life?

20. Can we have done with contemporary art? If one can make a living at it, good luck to you. We all have our day jobs. Can we treat the successful artist as just another person with a day job and ask that their real work be something else? Actual art in our time is organizational or not at all. It proposes organizations of resources that partially decommodify while working within real constraints. Contemporary art is just useless things for useless people. Take the hedgies’ money, if you can get it, but never their sense of worth. Our model must be Asger Jorn, who took the money from his collectors and with it funded the greatest avant gardes of postwar Europe.

21. The avant gardes that Jorn supported were precarious ones. Here in the overdeveloped world, this is now a general condition. The ruling class wants to collect the rent but it doesn’t want to employ anyone. Business as usual requires less and less actual labor, whereas a qualitative shift towards a post-carbon mode of production would keep all of busy for decades. But such a shift, waged against a ruling class now in possession of a state that makes few structural concessions to us, would require organizing a social movement of many components.

22. If we are to properly name the apparent ‘politics’ of the times, it isn’t neoliberal, its fascist. Consent is only secured by designating out-groups to hate. The offerings of the times are so paltry that they can only be made to seem meaningful by making others suffer something much worse. Its time for a new popular front against fascism. What could our place be in such a larger movement?

23. Like postfordism and late capitalism, ‘neoliberal’ is a poor name for the current mode of production. It draws attention to an old feature, not its new ones. It properly names only a feature of the state. The liberal state disciplined the market; whereas it’s the market that now disciplines the neoliberal state. We need a new language to describe emergent forms of commodity economy. Its not neo anything or post anything. Its not late capitalism or cognitive capitalism. Modifiers won’t do. Its based on an ontological mutation: the historical production of the category of information. We need to dig deeper into past languages to come up with new languages to describe it. We have been reading the same old books for too long.

23. The historical production of information as an ontological reality is a product of the organizational challenges of the cold war. Its interesting that both the Soviets and Americans with their different modes of production both arrived at it. The historical production of the reality of information is independent of strictly capitalist relations of production. But for the moment the promise of another mode of organization is still trapped in the commodity form, even if it’s a rather new and strange commodity form, one already organized outside strictly capitalist forms of the mass production of the thing.

25. The new form of the commodity – information – is producing new kinds of class relation. Here the avant garde finds its classic role available to it again: to experiment with the forms of everyday life of an emerging class. One can no longer quite say: workers of the world unite! We have a world to win! Maybe, with Michele Bernstein, we could say “monsters of the world unite!” Or perhaps:  Datapunks of the world untie! We have a world to lose!

McKenzie Wark

  • Pingback: Imagine the Political | Mckenzie Wark – “Accelerationism”()

  • Eleine

    This book could also be interesting: One Dimensional Woman, Nina Power, Zero Books, 2009. Free download http://libcom.org/files/onedimensionalwoman.pdf

  • mckenziewark

    Thanks! That would indeed be a more contemporary example

  • Aaron

    I’m very interested in accelerationism but still trying to make sense of it all. you write “Actual art in our time is organizational or not at all. It proposes organizations of resources that partially decommodify while working within real constraints.”

    What artists working now might you say embody this idea?

    • mckenziewark

      libgen, for example.

  • mckenziewark

    They probably wouldn’t be considered Capital-A artists, and might not particularly want to be invoked or named in anyone’s argument.

  • Pingback: Accelerationism | Research Material()

  • accelerometa

    McKenzie, you are right to ask if it is still Capitalism that we should be tackling, but I’m not sure that Fascism is the correct definition either. Lots of congruence, but also much difference. In particular the role is the state is different. Although there are totalitarian features in the modern state, the executive fulcrum it quite different.

    It does beg the question, then, do we need a new description to define the current historical formation of society?

    Maybes there is a better construction in an evolutionary account of history that is characterised by broad phase changes, something akin to Gould’s ‘punctuated equilibrium’ or Gaylord Simpson’s trinity of ‘bradytely, horotely, tachytely’ which would allow for both broad epochal staging and intra-era drift.

    Maybe it’s a mis-reading – by me of both the manifesto and your intervention above – but I read your critique that some stands of accelerationist politics too readily acknowledges Marx’s 6 stage model of historical development. Thus the acceleration would be an attempt speed up the teleological progress. Such a determinism would seem fraught with error.

    Never-the-less, the #Accerate debate does seem to have found a nexus for a discussion in support of the future. And may be of progress.

    • mckenziewark

      Yes, after appealing for new language i slip into old habits by talking about fascism. But there i think it might be helpful to think of it as a much broader phenomena, not limited to mid 20th century Europe. It was hastily swept up in the larger category of totalitarianism during the cold war, as if it was no longer a problem for the west.

      Yes, there is a certain philosophy of history that is revised here, but i have a certain loyalty to it.

  • joe

    Informatic Pangenesis

  • yardmandroneson

    dematerialise!

    the devaluation of information…the total field of nonself ..paradigmshift

  • Pingback: Accelerationism | ΕΝΙΑΙΟ ΜΕΤΩΠΟ ΠΑΙΔΕΙΑΣ()

  • Julian Oliver

    Great piece.

    I wonder if you’ve come across Odo Marquard’s ‘Acceleration Conformism’?

    http://bit.ly/1bnADKk

    It relates very closely to the problem of Accelerationism as you call it, covered in his book ‘In Defense of the Accidental’ (1991).

  • Pingback: P2P Foundation's blog » Blog Archive » McKenzie Wark on the Rentier Vectoral Class()

  • Pingback: McKenzie Wark on the Rentier Vectoral Class | PDX Currency Corporation()

  • Pingback: Accelerationism | Smart Cities | Scoop.it()

  • Pingback: Une liste des textes de McKenzie Wark | l e s o b s c u r s()

Previous post

Aesthetic Community in Detroit

Next post

Who's Afraid of Sigmund Freud?