LettersTheory & Practice

#Accelerate in reverse

Nothing seems more urgent now than to find useful ways of thinking what Donna Haraway calls naturecultures, and to do so historically. The elimination in advance of the problem of the continuities from the natural to the cultural that is such an ingrained prejudice in the humanities and social sciences is the greatest barrier to thought in these fields.

Moreover, naturecultures need to be understood historically, and the parceling-out into separate domains of nature and culture needs to be thought historically here too. This is where even Bruno Latour’s work lets us down, in its refusal to think larger synchronic or diachronic totalities, its retreat into empiricism, and its inconsistency in its treatment of the natural sciences, those forms of knowledge that supposedly take ‘nature’ as their domain.

Thinking futures for natureculture is even more a problem, given the general collapse of any theory of history that might be synthetic and empirically grounded. When even supposedly Hegelian thinkers such as Zizek start dancing around the bonfire of ‘apocalypse’ then we’re really up a dead end.

I had hoped that the accelerationists would come to our aid here. The publication of the #Accelerate anthology however shows both the potential but also the flaws in the attempt to reboot the theory of history by thinkers gathered under this banner.

There are some excellent texts in this anthology. (Those by Luciana Parisi and Benedict Singleton are for me the stand-outs). But there is also far too much that is more retro than accelerating, indeed may be accelerating thought backwards toward outmoded ways of working.

There is a general tendency to take the current moment of more-or-less openly acknowledged slow-motion crisis as an excuse to double-down on very old fashioned modes of thinking.

The most common form of this reactionary response is religious fundamentalism, with its denial of science and insistence on scripture. A rather more high-minded version of exactly the same thing is philosophical fundamentalism, with its rather comic attempt to think the world through the repetition of the reading of its own canon of scriptures.

The #Accelerate anthology contains its own old testament, including some supposedly ‘heretical’ texts. But there is no doubting the orthodoxy of the kinds of reading practices of such texts the book promotes.

A fine example of this would be the very first text of its old testament: Marx’s, ‘Fragment on Machines’, of 1858. In typical traditional fashion, in #Accelerate this founding text is either (a) ignored, as if it were just enough to reprint it. Or (b) treated as holy writ. No actual engagement with it takes place throughout the whole book!

We can discover quite a bit of what is unthought – even unthinkable – in accelerationist discourse simply by opening this famous text up and reading it. This will help with understanding a later moment in the anthology, where the rather provincial world of English accelerationist writing tries to make common-cause with Italian autonomists, for whom this Marx text is quite central. But we quickly discover that what these two tendencies are aligned in is precisely there errors of judgment. (The Negri text in this book is particularly unfortunate).

Marx’s interest in this fragmentary text is in the passage from the use of simple tools to machine systems. In other words he is trying to grasp the advanced industry of his day, which is to say the backward industry of our own times. He starts with a phenomena in the world – machine systems – and brings thought to it. This is of course the opposite of how Marx is now usually read: starting with his thought, in the form of texts like this one, and interpreting the phenomena through the text.

If one understands the difference between these two approaches, it is not hard to see how the now more common one results in the discourse of eternal capital, which is where most ‘Marxists’ seem to want to reside today. Marx is taken as revealing a deep philosophical essence of capital through the study of its historical and phenomenal forms. In this approach, it is admitted that capital is historical only to the extent that it may take on new historical forms, but its essence remains eternal and unchanging.

In this traditionalist, old testament Marxism, this eternal form then awaits its negation by that which is in-and-against it, labor. Among more Spinozist forms of Marxism, of which accelerationism is one flavor, there is no force of negation. Rather, the continual transformation of its appearances leads in the end to a qualitative change in its essence – in the end.

But there is a tension in this mode of thinking. It wants to hang on to some way of using the category of eternal capital. It does not quite want to admit that if capital is indeed continually mutating and self-modifying, then it has no essence, and ‘appearances’ need to be taken seriously as not mere phenomenal forms but as actual forms in the world. In short: there can be no ‘Marxism’ as a philosophy produced by means of philosophy, which takes the essence of capital as its subject. The modifications in so-called phenomenal forms need to be understood as more than mere phenomena, and that requires a more modest approach to the forms of knowledge of those modifications.

In short, Marxism could only be a collaborative practice of knowledge among different but equal ways of knowing, where philosophy is not the ruling party. Or to put it in a quite different language. The statement “the essence of technology is nothing technological” is fundamentally untrue and a barrier to thought. Technology really does need to be understood through the collaboration of specialized knowledges of what it actually is and does. The attempt to make philosophy a ruling ‘technology of essence’ is retrograde. The technology of essence is nothing essential. Philosophy can only set itself on a useful path once again on the basis of this humility, and as a low theory rather than a high theory.

Read as low theory, Marx’s 1858 text turns out to be interesting but of its time. He is bamboozled by this new machine system form of tech. He describes it, in mystified form as “a moving power that moves itself” (53). Actually it isn’t. A whole dimension is missing here, that of the forces of production are also energy systems. Entirely missing from this text is the simple fact that industrialization had run through all the forests of northern Europe and then switched to coal, which were in turn more or less exhausted in our time. This is connected, as we shall see, to Marx’s failure here to think through the metaphor of ‘metabolism’ in this text.

Most of the text is about the transfer of the worker’s skills into the machine in a form designed by capital. It is “the appropriation of living labor by objectified labor.” (54) Living labor in “subsumed under the total process” – one which here remains only partially thought. (54) The actual value-producing power of living labor becomes a vanishing quantity over and against that of fixed capital in the form of machinery.

Marx here grasps, in a mystified form, something important: The knowledge of the “social brain” appears as an aspect of capital rather than of labor (55) or in a formula that is not much better: “general social knowledge” has become a direct force of production.” (64) But rather than inquire as to how what appears as this fetish of ‘social brain’ is actually produced, Marx himself falls under the spell of it as a fetish.

For Marx, science will appear to the laborer as something alien to him. Science appears in the form capital dictates. Science is a productive force: “all the sciences have been pressed into the service of capital.” (61) But who makes science? “Invention has become a business,” says Marx, but who does the inventing? (61) Science also appears here as something alien to Marx.

It is worth bearing in mind the rather rudimentary state of the merger of science and industry in Marx’s time. Actually it wasn’t science that led to that stage of the industrial system. The energy system part – steam power – was the product of craftsman and self-taught engineers rather than science. Indeed, thermo-dynamics as science will largely arise out of the steam power industry rather than vice-versa.

A somewhat different story is the rise of the German chemical industry, where a somewhat more organic co-development of the experience-based engineering side and the lab-based scientific side took place. A different story again in an industry Marx doesn’t mention at all, and which is important rather later – electricity. Here Faraday and Maxwell’s scientific discoveries and theories really did lead more directly from science to industry.

The problem is that as actual organized social activities, science and technology does not fit so neatly into the schema of labor and capital. Hence in Marx it simply comes from without as a reified thing called ‘science’ which then becomes part of the machine system as fixed capital.

Here is where one of two kinds of knowledge of actual science can help us. One is science studies, which the accelerationists studiously pretend does not exist, lest it cloud there old-hat means of doing philosophy. But the other is the Marxist ‘social relations of science’ movement, which preceded science studies, and about which science studies too is curiously rather silent.

One can understand why science studies would downplay this movement, but the ignorance of accelerationists about it is rather more puzzling. For the social relations of science people were Marxists. Thus, we can turn to JD Bernal’s Science in History (now there is an acceleratonist title!) Bernal usefully shows how modern science arises out of the coming together of advanced forms of technical labor, on the one hand, and forms of gentlemanly culture which used its leisure time to crack the secrets of God’s universe. Or in short, its class origins are hybrid, and not quite locatable in any pre-existing class.

For what Marx could have no inkling of, given his times, is the way science itself would become not just a force of production but in its own right an industrial system, and one which works quite differently to the factory system. The factory system is based on quantified labor time, making standardized products. But what of those (non)labor processes that make non-standard things? New things? Or as Asger Jorn understood it: what about those who make not content but forms?

I was not the first to propose that we think of these people as belonging to another class – the hacker class. Bernal, for example, had already come close. But I did at least offer a thought about how the relations of production mutated to absorb them into the commodity system: the rise of intellectual property as an extensive system of increasingly private property rights that cover more and more classes of potential ‘commodities.

And so: to rethink Marx’s fragment outside of its historical time and into our own, we need to pay much more attention to at least two things: firstly, energy systems, about which Marx is here silent. Secondly, the contribution of science to the design of industrial systems, about which he has some intimations, but still in a fetishized form.

Putting energy back into the picture helps refine a metaphor Marx uses twice in this fragment but in an unsatisfactory way – metabolism. Marx identifies only circulating capital with “metabolism” (58) and understands it in too restricted a way, not as an energy system but as a matter of distribution.

This is particularly problematic when he links metabolism to agriculture, which “becomes merely the application of the science of material metabolism, its regulation for the greatest advantage of the entire body of society.” (62) One can connect this in turn to the inkling Marx has of labor no longer as that which contributes energy to production, but that which controls it through information. He uses the term “regulator” for this. (62) Possibly thinking of the regulator of the steam engine – sometimes also known as the accelerator.

Now, if there was a text with which #Accelerate should begin, for me it would be Marx from Capital Vol. 3 on metabolic rift. His real breakthrough (as John Bellamy Foster has shown) is to understand that in agriculture and perhaps elsewhere that labor is not functioning as the regulator of a metabolism, but quite the reverse. That collective social labor, as incorporated in the machine systems of capital, are ‘deregulators’, exacerbating metabolic rifts, of which climate change is just one.

So the Marx of 1858 does not know yet the full contours of what he is groping with. He is like the blind man with the elephant. And as in that parable, it is only through the combined efforts of all kinds of blind researchers that the contours of the thing can be known, and the elephant in the room described and conceived: metabolic rift. Never let it be forgotten that it is only through the sciences that a metabolic rift such as climate change can be understood at all.

This fragment then is indeed a fragment, not a knowledge of a totality, nor could it ever be. Marx lacks a sense of this other force subsumed within capital in the form of industrial systems – what here is merely called ‘science’, but in the language I have developed elsewhere is the collective social production of difference by the hacker class, which I take to include all those whose efforts can take the form of intellectual property, and which one way or another are alienated from the hacker class as a class.

Moreover: Marx lacks at this point a sense of metabolism as something more than mere distribution, but in the full sense implied in the metaphor, of an energy system that might use information to regulate itself. He lacks the knowledge of the disfunction of this system, which will come when Engels draws his attention to Leibig’s work on the impoverishment of the soil.

In the absence of knowledge of these two phenomena, Marx allows his conceptual apparatus to overshoot the available data, and in the end to become a hostage to philosophizing. He constructs a false relation between a partially grasped totality and a future conceived via a merely abstract, formal, dialectical negation.

For Marx, machinery is mostly a way of capturing more time from the worker (and here he neglects the science part he has elsewhere so presciently intuited.) Marx: “capital here – quite unintentionally – reduces human labor, expenditure of energy, to a minimum. This will redound to the benefit of emancipated labor.” (59) Notice how energy finally appears here, but only the energy of human labor. He has not grasped (as Altvater will) the extent to which the replacement of human energy with fossil-fuel energy is very central to how capitalism unfolded.

The machine system means a reduction of necessary labor time to a minimum, and the replacement of labor by capital. Wealth can be created independently of labor time. This ought to increase the amount of real wealth – disposable time. The result is “not-labor time” for the few (64). The machine system is thus, despite itself, instrumental in creating the means of social disposable time.” (64) “The saving of labor time is equal to an increase of free time, ie time for the full development of the individual, which in turn reacts back upon the productive power of labor as itself the greatest productive power.” (66)

It is a neat dialectic, and at least the beginnings of a way of thinking capitalism that is not romantic, which does not simply want to run away from the whole question of the means of production into some idle idyll. The eros of Marcuse, etc) “While machinery is the most appropriate form of the use value of fixed capital, it does not follow that therefore subsumption under the social relation of capital is the most appropriate and ultimate social relation of production for the application of machinery.” (57) Machinery could be something else. Capital calls machinery into existence in the form of fixed capital, but it could take another form.

This is a point that needs insisting on in the tech-ignorant world that is so much of the humanities and social sciences. There ‘politics’ is the magic answer to all our problems. But not this actual politics whose dismal rituals we see all around us. Some other politics, virtual but not actual. For this crowd, politics has this dual character, virtual and actual, but technology never does. Only the first part of Marx’s thinking on this is absorbed – that science and tech, or today’s technoscience, is absorbed into capital and takes its form. That it too is both virtual and actual, and could have other forms, is not up for discussion. The merit of #Accelerate texts such as those by Singleton and Parisi is that they dare to ask if tech could be otherwise.

But to make progress in this direction means dispensing with a bit of Marx’s obiter dicta that became holy writ: the notion of “general intellect.” (64) This is an idealist residue, a fetishistic half-thought, not a concept. There is no general intellect.

There are only the concrete and specific practices of the production of knowledge. These become ‘general’ only in fetishistic form: as intellectual property. This stage of capitalism – if that is what it still is – developed a whole apparatus for commodifying the results of hacker activity, codified in relatively new property forms, which are used not only in producing industrial systems over and against labor, but against the hacker class as well.

Hence science is neither exogenous, nor is it as simple as saying that “invention becomes a business.” (61) Rather, it became a new kind of business, which changed all the others. There is no eternal capital. It has no transhistorical essence. It mutates in both its particulars and its abstract forms. It can neither be negated from without, nor does merely accelerating it do anything other than open metabolic rifts. There is no Promethean leap. (Note, just in passing, that all those who feed and tend to the slave-owning gods and heroes of such fables never appear in them).

The task before us, rather is to work out how different kinds of knowledge of different parts of the metabolism might cooperate, other than via the commodification of knowledge as intellectual property. Then we might extrapolate from what we know of how metabolic systems of all kinds operate, and design a better one – a survivable natureculture. This is a task not entirely made easier by atavistic philosophy, trying steal fires it does not even know how to light. Nor is it helped by scriptural reverence for the old texts, even of Marx. For he too was a product of his times.


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McKenzie Wark

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