Accelerationism

“I turned to the wilderness really, not to Mr. Kurtz, who, I was ready to admit, was as good as buried. And for a moment it seemed to me as if I also was buried in a vast grave full of unspeakable secrets. I felt an intolerable weight oppressing my breast, the smell of the damp earth, the unseen presence of victorious corruption, the darkness of an impenetrable night.”
– Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Part 3

I had the pleasure of spending a good few hours at Goldsmiths on Tuesday for the Accelerationism conference organised by Mark K-Punk. Speaking were Mark K-Punk, Ray Brassier, Ben Noys, Alex Andrews, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. The 6 talks hinged around the diagnosis of a new trend in critical thought, Accelerationism, and a new collected essays by Nick Land, Fanged Noumena, which gets top marks for the name alone, about to be put out by Urbanomic. This mad black magus became known in the 90s for his wild Deleuzian telos, a vision of Capitalism as inhuman and machine-like, one he actively seemed to relish.

From this, we got accelerationism. What is it? Well if you want to know,  find out briefly here with Ben Noys’ definition on his blog No Useless Leniency, or via the various paths through K-Punk here, or you can hear my potted understanding. Taking its cue from Marx, an Accelerationist position distorts Marxian logic, bringing about the downfall of capitalism by accelerating its intrinsic contradictions. In this sci-fi vision, Capitalism is everywhere, and Capital an abstract and external evil. If we’re going to beat Skynet, we’re going to have to do an inside job. Here the necessity is to radicalise very capitalism itself, the worse the better. As Noys expands, the subject of revolt is the subject in capital; its book is Libidinal Economy, the “evil book” of Lyotard. According to Mark k-punk, we are all Accelerationists now, including Karl Marx, and that this has never happened as a political position before, with no cultural correlative except maybe in the music of Burial and the Savage Messiah zines of Laura Oldfield-Ford, which came under the neologism of Hauntology.

Make it go faster baby, watch it blow! Finance machine like some Jack in the Box or untended box of fireworks; no – Capitalism as the Matrix, cybernetic machine which sucks our vitality and drip-feeds us dreams. We are Blade Runner’s Replicants, we are the transhuman characters in a William Gibson book. Cyberpunk baby, where the enemy is not President Murdoch, Prime Minister Cameron or exploitative Multi-national capitalists in medicine or agriculture. It’s an abstract ghostly System itself. So sit back and do what?

In some ways, I see aspects of Accelerationism that I would argue for. Firstly, it relies on understanding economic processes, particularly the Neo-Liberal model of post-Fordist capitalism generally used which we take for granted. Alex Andrews referred to an fascinating study by Mirowski and Plehre (review here), which analyses the source and usage of the term Neoliberal, which has become in some ways meaninglessly vague and disagreed on. Understanding the importance of Hayek – who is at least known in Britain for influencing Thatcher’s policies, continued and developed by Blair, Brown and Cameron/Cable. Secondly, it accounts at least for the Credit Crisis, which showed at least the intrinsic weaknesses within finance. Though rather than attacking these again and the state restoration of finance, Accelerationism instead tells us to sit back and let it blow.

“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”
– Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Part 1

Ok, now how does this idea actually work? As one person asked, does it come in the form of the Stahknovite worker who demands more and more work to do, more than his manager can possibly ask – which, if the entire workforce did, would undermine the entire management (or give the workers even more to do)? No, too impractical, workers are tired out and dehumanised by work. The call-centre worker is the image here reader, and apt given apparently 6 ½ million work in finance, 3 ½ million in factories. The new proletarian is the man or woman sitting next to you (in the next cubicle actually), trotting out the same standardised company script regarding reporting faulty land-lines to an insane pensioner from Bury. Let it be known that this is a revolution for call-centre workers, not tube drivers or coal miners: IT literate, depressed, dehumanised, overstimulated. And ultimately there was no clear answer. And this has always been my problem with Marxian critical theory – if there is no practical strategy for mobilising class consciousness or bringing about a fairer society, what on earth is the point? Another talk-shop, another PhD opportunity in someone else’s misery (or mystery)?

There’s some clear flaws with Accelerationism. The Marxist logic itself, for one. Ok, we defeat Capitalism (hurrah hurrah implied, but why would we want to do this though?) by pushing its inherent contradictions – it’s gonna blow anyway, with a religious redemptive revolution at the end of it, let’s push it faster, exacerbate the conditions for revolution! So does that mean, as local govt employees, we actually strive to make living conditions worse? Absurdly, possibly. While Accelerationism correctly points to the 2008 Financial Crisis as an opportunity to provoke a crisis within the system, there is little articulation of where this is to go, who by, and how. John Hutnyk has a pretty funny and fair polemical piss-take here.

Secondly, why do we assume history is on our side? This is something Alex Williams is particularly guilt of in his dual-analysis of ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ accelerationism, in another post on his blog, Splintering Bone Ashes. Weak Accelerationism drives capitalism towards point of communist revolution by foregrounding its internal contradictions, which in real terms means making things worse, which presupposes that the proletariat might not just rise up against their middle-class and marginal left-wing overlords who are acting to manipulate the markets and criticise trade unionism. Strong Accelerationism in contrast poses whether accelerated processes of Capital itself might fundamentally alter them, and in doing so alter subjectivity towards the inhuman, beyond any revolution. This is closest to Nick Land’s position. Again we can argue, as Noys does, that this also leads to absurdity. Nick Land’s celebration of the machinic impulses of Capital was meaningless in the 1990s: capitalism did not need him or the analysis, so why write it? Why celebrate and endorse these inhuman tendencies in capitalist flows? I think this is where Mark K-Punk’s paper on Terminator and Avatar was useful, but spent a little too much time describing Nick Land. If Capital is Schwarzenegger’s cyborg incarnate, this mega death drive, then what difference does it make to describe it? Why bother? Instead of celebrating Land’s nightmare vision, why isn’t this description used to challenge Capitalism?

“Nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of native–he called them enemies!–hidden out of sight somewhere.”
– Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Part 1

Mark’s argument coupled the awkward Terminator of Nick Land to the John Connor-like optimism that Accelerationism could be used as an active anti-capitalist strategy for the Left. Here the Left must take up the image of the Future against Capitalism’s representatives and managers in finance and government, who present us with the miserable inevitable tale that this is the only society we can get, that we have to make the best of. Ok, but without any clear strategy or calls for political agency or resistance, this all seems theoretically deceptive and realistically daft.

As questioners in the discussion became more and more confused, one guy rightly posed that we need to get back to economic basics, without Marx. What is going on? How do we bring out what we want? Who is this ‘we’? Guess…

A) men

B) middle-aged

C) disgruntled ex/post-marxists /academics generally

D) middle class

E) an unfair but mostly accurate generalisation of the above

So obviously its the revolution comrade.

I’m fascinated by how scattered trends are historicised, I see it in fanzine culture a lot, and it’s a process that one should knowingly take advantage of and use. Curiously, the term was coined by Noys back in 2008 after a serious of posts by Alex Williams, in order to describe and criticise a tendency he’d seen for several years without being able to categorise – present in Lyotard, Barthes, Baudrillard, Deleuze. Noys at the conference presented a curious figure, a man who had come to speak but primarily to savage any favourable reading or support of Accelerationism. Land was wrong, quite frankly, and Noys argued repeatedly that all Accelerationism was a capitalist fallacy, with a dangerous nostalgia for the very recent past (1990s cyberpunk, Nick Land, Jungle music etc), for a kind of Sino-Capitalism with full biopower and “no Judeo-Christian hang-ups”.

There were a couple of elephants in the room amongst the empty paper cups, iPhone bashers and dozing PhD geeks. Who is Nick Land? Ray Brassier, the second speaker, gave a fascinating and equally confusing presentation which took an hour to say not a lot, with a dramatic silence in the middle, at least informing me that Nick Land is strange and hard to fathom. But I was still in the dark, the right place at least for Land’s anti-humanism. But secondly, why isn’t Nick Land here? This elephant was larger and more obvious. I didn’t know prior, I’d only read his difficult book on Bataille (my obviously prejudiced in favour of the rational, semantically meaningful, Judeo-Christian prejudices etc., and since the conference I’ve found nothing online. Noys is far better on Bataille, one of the most lucid and fair understandings of Bataille – I’ve written on Bataille and Blanchot in the past, and Noys was a useful beacon, though more like a lighthouse in a different part of the ocean. Most of the talks hinged around ‘Landianism’ and how relevant Land’s antagonism to Leftist ideology might be, but where was he? The silence of Nick Land was loud, and Brassier’s and Fisher’s talks sounded like requiems.

By about two thirds into the talking, everything stops making sense, as words fly past like ‘finance’, ‘capitalism’, ‘derivatives’. Individually I know these words well, but in academic combinations they begin to become a little meaningless. I catch others dozing off, and at least I’m awake. Others snigger, and one manically bashes thumbs against the warm screen of an iPhone. Where to? What to? Accelerate where? I get the impression that some of the speakers don’t quite know what they mean.

I’ll conclude this by comparing Accelerationism to some seemingly irrelevant observations: hold with me reader, you’ve done well to get this far. After the conference I was watching Come Dine With Me, which of course you will all know as that compelling Channel 4 dinner-party show where 5 contestants in a town compete to win a prize for the best evening. This episode featured celebrities. At one point, that rubbish ex-Lib Dem MP Lembit Opik (yes, that one what went out with one of the Cheeky Girls) made a naff joke about Communists: “Why do Communists not drink Earl Grey tea? Because all proper tea is theft“. Ho ho ho indeed.

Yet the contestants’ blank faces revealed a complete misunderstanding of what Communism even is (though in fairness it was Jodie Marsh, Iain Lee and Debbie McGee). Before we rush ahead, a simple explanation of the economy and what capitalism is would be necessary. Most people just don’t know. Rather than say ‘we are all Accelerationists’, let’s argue that ‘we are all anti-capitalists’. Talk to Londoners: so many people are against the state rescue of the financial system with public money, the Middle East wars, sweatshop labour, the dismantling of the welfare system, the humongous wages of hedge fund managers and footballers, the miserable working conditions and high-rent of London life. Not everyone, but many more than is thought. Reach out and give an image of the future. Not academic Marxism, not Cultural Studies – Mark K-Punk has come closest with the image of Capitalist Realism. Abandon Nick Land and return here.

Secondly, a tactic like Accelerationism acts either as a ludicrous and fatalistic defence of Capital, or a strategy that is just too vague to implement and which, in whatever small cases it is worked, will mainly serve to alienate others and get that person sacked, making the Left look even more obscure and confusing. Instead, reclaim the possibility of staging now-illegal General Strikes of call-centre workers, civil servants, public transport staff alongside company administrators and PA’s. Yeah the Left was rightly implicated in the criticism of Post-structuralists of who this ‘We’ is of the revolution. Now the We is a small collective of academic Marxists. Negri points the way with the idea of the multitude, yet even Empire is part of the problem – although full of fascinating insights, I found this book very hard to read, and I imagine most people would be baffled and bored by it. Many live with the threat of instant dismissal and poverty, many live with the sadness of a life suffocated by work and the impossible demands of the spectacle of consumer society, its Beauty and its Success.

A lonely life this. Technology plays its part. The economy is far more mediocre and complicated than the above suggests.

“They had behind them, to my mind, the terrific suggestiveness of words heard in dreams, of phrases spoken in nightmares.”
– Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Part 3

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11 thoughts on “Accelerationism

  1. I suppose it would be *tremendously* unfashionable of me to mention the incredible first-worldism of accelerationism…

  2. I was he who both bashed iPhone and simultaneous frantically bashed my iPhone in the last session. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I was actually twittering what was going on because lots of people like to know what is happening at these kinds of things, particularly my friends scattered all around the world.

    This said, this is a thoughtful account of the day, with lots to think on. Thanks very much. I have a little more to say, but I’ll have to think a bit more before I say it – I should say though that I am fully for conference not simply being exercises in intellectual navel gazing without a call to some kind of action, something I think I share with Mark as you see through his book.

    Julian,

    To be fair, at least in the session I presented at, Nina Power asked about the implicit first worldism off all of this – ie just because we are all in call centres doesn’t mean there isn’t a vast world of exploitation behind it – I think agreed with her firmly. There were similar points made viz this and environmentalism (the fact the poorest will be trashed by any ecological destruction) in the last session also.

    1. That’s fair enough Alex, I was reading back over my piece and I do apologise for the slightly bratty description! I’ve noticed that everybody on trains seems to be holding their phones, often without purpose, and I’m worried that there might be some popular ontological panic that they may just disappear completely if not quite connected to a media device. That said, I’m guilty too. It was an excellent talk all in all, good use of Powerpoint for sure, but probably the most informative for me as I know little about economic history and development, and I assume far too much. Hence the importance of analysing NeoLiberalism that you brought up.

      I think the interesting relevance of accelerationism is that first world or third world is dissolved, as international capital creates a computer-based call-centre proletariat, something already happening in India, China, Malaysia, Brazil etc, countries often pipped as the rising economic stars, despite the fact all wealth produced belongs less to the states and the companies operating in them. So a fair point Julian, there is definitely an ethnocentricism here, but no more so (I’d argue) than any theory of society or what humans should be is guilty of. That doesn’t make it right (and it’s a bit of a poor defence I know) but you could argue the same way about Marx, JS Mill, Hayek or Adam Smith. Theories can be picked up and reworked for their context. What makes this an interesting current, I think, is the acknowledgement of a different kind of Capital without relying on dodgy impositions of 19thc economics.

    2. Sure – I didn’t actually attend (though colleagues did) and didn’t hear about that question I’m afraid.

      With regard to the “computer-based call-centre proletariat”, I do get the sneaking feeling that this label applies simply because they’re the only section of foreign workers we come into contact with, never mind the fact that they are urban, educated enough to work in a call-centre, and they actually earn a really very good wage compared to what I would regard as the far more proletarian section of foreign workers. Just look at this FT article (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/0f6d8f76-aa29-11df-9367-00144feabdc0.html) about how it is actually now as cheap to run a call-centre in the US as it is in India. The figures I’ve heard for call-centre wages are in the region of $150-300/month – which doesn’t sound like much, until you also take into account the fact that ~25% of Indians earn less than 12 dollars per month.

      When so many people are living in conditions as bad as (if not in some ways worse than) the 19th century, my problems with a fairly uncritical return to Marx do rather melt away.

      1. Yes I agree Julian, you make an important point here. The rate of suicides among Indian farmers brought this to the fore a few years back (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/7333911.stm). It reminds me of something I’ve been reading “The Net and Multiple Realties” by Jodi Dean, which criticises the public sphere of the internet. I’ll quote you something that I think does apply here – “instead of enabling the emergence of a richer variety in modes of living and practices of freedom, the deluge of screens and spectacles undermines political opportunity and efficacy for most of the world’s peoples”. This criticism could be modified and applied to Accelerationism – just another defence of capitalism, despite its’ proponents hopes that it now directly applies to a global proletariat. Sticking on the theme of the Public Sphere and the internet, there’s a key criticism of Galloway and Thacker here, another key source of Accelerationism according to Ben Noys, that it is absurd to talk about a global public sphere of the internet when most of the world does not have the net, a computer, or even for many electricity (http://marywieder.blogspot.com/2009_09_01_archive.html). In allying with the skilled computer manufacturers of Hungary, electronics engineers in China, Korea, Japan, the call-centre workers of India, we’re kind of mistaking a privileged educated ‘middle class’ possibly with the huge number of people, in the UK, US as everywhere else, that do live in serious material poverty, are affected by illiteracy and so on. It is a backwards step.

  3. The only important words in this whole thing, to “”””understand”””” what is happening, what will happen, and what has alrready happened is that

    NICK

    (LAND)

    WAS

    NOT

    THERE

  4. Seriously accelerationism is as old as the hills, mencheviks legitimised the starvation of peasants in the name of accelarationism, if accelerationism meant cuts to university funding that resulted in an end to these “academics” careers, they’d very quickly decide accelerationism is not for them.

    1. Agreed, it was some time ago. Theory rumbles on though. It’s worth checking and commenting on the more recent Accelerationist Manifesto by Williams and Srnicek last year, http://syntheticedifice.wordpress.com/2014/03/13/accelerate-manifesto-for-an-accelerationist-politics/.

      I wrote a response to that shortly after, which is more nuanced than my ramblings in this old post, but still inadequate in itself: http://anticapitalists.org/2013/05/30/nowhere-fast-a-brief-critique-of-the-accelerationist-manifesto/.

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