Nowhere fast? A brief critique of the Accelerationist Manifesto
‘The left must develop sociotechnical hegemony: both in the sphere of ideas, and in the sphere of material platforms. […] 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.’
Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, “#Accelerate. Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics”, Speculative Heresy, May 2013, 3§11.
(Give every Dhaka pickpocket, sex worker and street-kid a smartphone and the revolution begins?*)
The problem with the recent, and on the whole excellent, “#Accelerate. Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics” (hereafter Accelerationist Manifesto) is that it startlingly universalises and globalises the experience of a minority of western metropolitan academics. This is also true of the preoccupation with cybernetics and posthumanism in the universities, which makes little sense in the dust-trails of central Russia or southern Africa, or the crude scramble for minerals and resources which determines most of the activity of the world’s leading nation-states and the commercial interests they seek to advance. The globalisation of financial capital operates, as it always has done, physical and brutal way, marked in the bodies and landscapes of people and the earth. In this brief critique I want to sketch out some problematic presumptions of the manifesto, and suggest some alternative strategies for new social and political organisations who seek to resist and overcome neoliberal capitalism.
In fact, the problem with the manifesto is far more general than McKenzie Wark’s friendly critique allows, the only other substantial textual engagement so far in this interesting event in contemporary critical theory. Both take on face-value the prospect of environmental collapse, with Wark making humoured mention of ‘private arks’ being built by capital for the coming ecological collapse. Evidence of ecological transformations is cited repeatedly, but the new problems of accelerated climate increase, rising sea-levels and so on will probably lead to a series of human adaptations, as similar climate upheavals have done in the past. New crops will grow at expense of others; new diasporic communities will form as a result of environmental destruction; new wars will ensue and old wars resolve. The vast majority of the human race will continue being exploited in a physical way. Though by 2113 the earth may be four or eight degrees warmer in the UK and US, those who can afford to do so will continue to have their foods imported from the exploited developing world, as they are now, whilst the remainder are viciously exploited and struggle for mean survival, as they do currently. What is needed is a new political ‘imaginary’ and ‘totality’ as Wark vaguely puts it, or the ‘utopia’ and sense of ‘future’ advocated in the final sections of the Accelerationist Manifesto, but these calls are as vague as shouting for ‘justice’ and ‘peace’ in any other era. What I mean is, and what I hope to sketch out in some basic form below, is the need for a collective political organisation to use this imaginary. Just as the Suffragettes called for a principle, ‘Votes for Women’, they matched this with another, ‘Deeds not Words’, and a powerful and proactive political organisation.
Austerity and anxiety are not new
Let’s not be mistaken, this is not a new era of austerity or anxiety. A browse of the British Library catalogue sees the term in vogue to describe almost every era from the post-war period on; its policies were a systemic feature of western governments following World War One in any case. If austerity means the imposed deprivation of citizens by a government for the benefit of a small class of capitalists (or any elite), then it is embedded feature of non-socialist governments. So to with anxiety, which Mark Jackson’s recent book has excellently described within a wider cultural history that stems back to the mid 19th-century. Jackson’s research is impeccable, and through provision of a vast number of compelling examples, a picture rapidly emerges of stress as nothing new, but a feature of modernity and an outlet for discussing social anxieties and status in pseudo-medical terms. Could this example be from 2013?
‘So much for some of the effects of [anxiety]. What of the causes? It is almost platitudinous to speak of the anxiety connected with the competition of living, and now with the equally grave and increasing sense of international insecurity; of the pace at which we life; of the precariousness of life itself in the streets, so that we seem these days to live by accident rather than to die by it; of the monotony and drabness inherent in many workers’ long hours of physical and mental effort; of the lack of air and of exercise and of sleep; of the exciting nature of our amusements, whether the immediate demand for them be normal relaxation or a dope; of noise – needless, stupid, provocative, ill-mannered, selfish noise…’
Lord Horder, a British cardiologist, was writing about ‘nerve strain’, not anxiety, in Health & a Day in 1937 (in Jackson 2013: 77).
The Accelerationist Manifesto is written out of the same spirit as Toffler’s dated 1972 film (based on the 1970 book) Future Shock, and out of the same modernist anxieties about a ‘sick society’ facing collapse through its own decadence that spurred the British eugenics movement (popular with George Bernard Shaw) as well as social reformers. In this regard, stress is a means of talking about modern living and a ‘civilising process’, as Jackson would say after Norbert Elias, in relation to the control and modernisation of the body. Being busy is a mark of status, stress indicates our productive force and offers an outlet to brag about our social responsibility and status.
Austerity and anxiety are collective and individual markers of domination. They inform us that, in contrast the innumerable number of crises described in the Accelerationist Manifesto, capitalism is doing extraordinarily well. The FTSE rises, China and India re-emerge as global powers after a 300-year hiatus in a new, state-capitalist form. And further, let’s add that the perceived failures of the Left are not new either, and that wound-licking has also persisted for decades. The intellectual Left has not posed an obstacle to capitalism in the UK since the late-1960s in the wake of the anti-Vietnam struggles and new social movements. There is no malaise to think of – the appeals to the left for new strategies are appeals to an historical actor which no longer exists in a united, organised form. But the last significant challenge came from the workers’ movements, particularly the miners and printers, during the mid-1980s, involved a kind of mobilisation and argument that the intellectual eurocommunist left had abandoned – collective organisation based around a broadly social democratic government-state – in favour of a more rhizomatic, informal, and easily overrun networks of Deleuze & Guattari.
Folk politics vs Google politics
Whilst the ‘flimsy and ephemeral “authenticity” of communal immediacy’ (1§5), what the writers term ‘folk politics’ is sneered at here, working in places other than universities could be a valuable experience for the writers. A few years in community work and charity work have offered me a valuable instruction that if new social organisations and struggles can’t be formed in the particular milieu of a community of individuals from diverse backgrounds, then it is hopeless expecting something can be applied on a more general and universal level. If anything, most citizens are motivated by different concerns than the excesses of neoliberalism or ecological collapse, and there is already an abundance of good propaganda and analysis detailing their existence. Political organisations need to return to the desires of the collective first, otherwise they are in danger of calling for ‘war’ and ‘war strategies’ without having first formed an army. Unless, that is, a top-down imposition of institutions is organised and imposed like, say, in the foundation of the NHS or welfare state. But this requires first a social democratic programme based on the government-state, which is again here lacking.
What if we were to turn our attentions back to how class is formed in the first place? At a later stage, this is what the Accelerationist Manifesto calls for, in the need for a new class composition of ‘partial proletarian identities, often embodied in post-Fordist precarious labour’ (3§18). This idea is interesting, and reiterates the importance of reading E.P. Thompson again, particularly The Making of the English Working Class, a work that sees its 50th anniversary this year and its relevance undiminished. As Thompson put it, ‘Class is defined by men as they live their own history, and in the end, this is its only definition’ (Thompson 1963: 11). Class-formation and class-struggle are activities and processes, which in turn constitute a class. Whilst the Accelerationist call for a precarious class-formation is interesting, it doesn’t engage with how contemporary classes are formed now. Often a ‘folk’ identity is essential for rallying otherwise geographically-dispersed political movements of resistance, be it in the growing popularity of Nigel Farage’s UKIP and its folk-narrative offers of ‘common sense’ and ‘Britishness’ (a very English notion), or in the younger and more vicious edge of this with the English Defence League and its Islamaphobia – both tap similar political constituencies, the disenchanted working class. Or even, a more extreme example, the minuscule Jihadi movement in England, where young men from Romford or Leeds constitute a folk-identity with oppressed Muslims in countries devastated by western military aggression. In all cases, a serious and compelling mustering of political forces is achieved through a folk identity. Whilst some jingoistic idea of Englishness was not at the core of Thompson’s historical working class, there were clearer common links in self-improvement and entitlement among communities that already enjoyed links through the working, trading and church communities they shared. In our times these are lacking, and an appeal to a broader idea of folk identity, of an English socialism, could be essential to any popular mainstream success.
The limits of ‘accelerationist politics’, as opposed to ‘folk politics’ which I don’t endorse either, is that it is equivalent and in many ways identical to the politics of Google, also at ease with ‘abstraction, complexity, globality, and technology’ (3§1), as well as assisting governments to conduct surveillance of citizens, and to pressure governments into continuing to provide tax-breaks to austerity, thereby enabling ideologically-neoliberal governments like the UK’s to further attack the welfare budget. Google politics, or accelerationist politics, are of little help to an exhausted carer of an autistic child whose disability is difficult to ‘prove’, to an unemployed young man with a criminal record and few GCSEs who has been discarded by society, or a underemployed politics postgraduate with high debts and worsening depression who can provide a great analysis of the British state but is unable to do anything actually effective towards this end with her skills except either work in a university, coffee shop or office, on an equally insecure contract and wage.
Perhaps they solve a theoretical dilemma in the academy. When I journey through London streets, all I see is the irrelevance of repurposing neoliberalism. That is already occurring – day-trading, shopfront-churches maybe – the Manifesto gives no practical, verifiable examples and these suppositions are my own, which in any case offer no political potential. We already have a sense of what a ‘technosocial body’ (3§6) can do – entrepreneurs across the West are already capitalising on technosocial bodies, making great profits out of social media games, gadgets, apps and advertising, based on social media data and Google Analytics. This is an economy as artificial and decadent as private property, which in the UK has now become a second currency in a state which no longer produces much else than financial capital itself. A technology cannot win a conflict, especially one that aims at post-capitalism, if already embedded in its construction and functionality is a series of capitalist objectives and values. Google entrepreneurs also want to work less, but these technologies will not make us more intelligent, just, happy or equal human beings. Equally, one can observe already that the well-intended ‘clicktivism’ of Avaaz, 350.org and the innumerable abundance of anti-capitalist tweeting, griping or facebook liking are not destabilising the power or hegemony of the western governments or their capitalist defenders.
What about another (disappointingly historicist and faintly folky) option?
The rejection of Fordism as racist, sexist and utterly impossible is hasty, and problematic. Collective organisations of labour and production, premised on some initial debt and investment, are possible in any modern state, not least one like the UK which retains a vast amount of wealth in property which could be one-day reappropriated. Collective industrialised employment isn’t intrinsically racist, sexist or imperialist – these were the conditions imposed externally by the sociopolitical environment on workers. I would argue that the English and Irish working-classes had a similar experience of exploitation, forced dislocation and deprivation as did any other colonised population of India, Western Africa or elsewhere under the British Empire. A Keynesian project would be possible with a social-democratic or socialist political government that would provide stability of employment, new housing and improved infrastructure for UK citizens. At the moment, such a government is remote and the nearest sympathetic party, Labour, are increasingly turning right-wards in an effort to maintain political stability. But the party exists to exploit a social-democratic political movement alone, it seeks power for the sake of it, and could either be repurposed or preferably abandoned by a new social-democratic movement.
If we wish to consider the world without the prioritisation of the human in it, then who else can we engage but Spinoza, who sought to consider things ‘as if they were lines, planes or bodies’. But to use Spinoza would also deploy contemporary scientific reason for the overarching end of human freedom and joy, a rational and political project. The appeal to ‘collective self-mastery’ is entirely in tune with Spinoza’s own rational project, wherein an object’s freedom and power are achieved through pursuing their own self-advantage, which is through a clear knowledge of reason to overcome and master the passions of the body and the mind. But we can also learn from Spinoza that his project wasn’t a universal political goal for all. Spinoza’s ideal, the ‘perfect man’ or ‘free man’, finds his greatest advantage in associating with others of equal abilities in a free association of mutual aid. The free man does not need a government or state. But this freedom isn’t accessible for all people, who are limited by nature and their passions to not achieve a true knowledge of reason, even if the capacity is there. We can all think of people who will not adjust their opinions despite the presentation of superior contrary evidence, and Spinoza had religious dogmas and intolerance in mind too. For the collectivity of people, a secular and democratic government-state is needed that enables all to achieve the greatest quality of life, and the possibility of advancing towards self-mastery, all the while knowing that only a handful will.
Of course, what values exactly constitute ‘self-mastery’ is dubious, and the early-risers of the Forbes list of successful people would also probably define themselves as such. In any case, a political project for Spinoza would not be premised on technological advancement and planning in its own terms, even if political science is to be understood rationally; rather, a political project must be based on what brings the greatest benefit to all life, which is a civic society based on a secular, free and tolerant, and truly democratic state. It is a disappointingly folky and historicist solution, but presents ideas alien and dangerous to the increasingly impassioned, egotistical and state-phobic misreasoning of Tory thinktanks, and the increasingly-neoliberal New Labour albatross.
There is much to recommend the Accelerationist Manifesto, which is well-written, stimulating and full of valuable insights. The analysis of neoliberalism as ‘a sublimation of the crisis rather than its ultimate overcoming’ (2§4), in relation to the value crisis of 1971-1973 is excellently made, and the permeation of work into life also very good. So too is the need for some kind of post-capitalist planning, a vacancy in much of recent Marxism’s disenchanted and increasingly religious theorisations of the Revolution – civil war and famines/blackouts caused by trade embargoes would beset any revolutionary state. But when capitalism is now so ubiquitous, encoded within us, and increasingly powerful, in theorising its end are the Accelerationists not theorising its next goal, particularly in the West, of the exploitation and extraction of surplus-value from new technologies? Anticapitalist thought needs a theorisation of collective desire and the social democratic government-state if can meaningfully contend and offer a counter-power to such a force.
* Not unless they began wreaking a little postcolonial revenge like the Yahoo boys of Lagos…
Jackson, Mark. The Age of Stress: Science and the Search for Stability. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963.
Williams, Alex and Nick Srnicek, “#Accelerate. Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics”, Speculative Heresy blog, May 2013.