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<nettime> On Accelerationism (Fred Turner)

September 1, 2016 — What is to be done? In 1901, when Lenin posed this
now-canonical question, the answer was a communist revolution. Today, 25
years since the Internet went public, the answer has come to seem to
many on the left to be a technological one. In the 1990s, it was
right-wing libertarians such as John Perry Barlow who claimed to know
what to do with the information system. In the future, they wrote, we
would leave our bodies behind and dive headlong into a glorious pool of
universal mind called Cyberspace. In the early 2000s, the builders of
social media, some of whom subscribed to the tech-left ideals of open
source software and copyleft reproduction rights, sold the public a new
utopia. But instead of the world of technology-enabled interpersonal
intimacy they promised, social media have become a series of
commercially sponsored stages on which to preen for selfies and spin off
data to be mined by states and corporations. During the Arab Spring
uprisings of 2011, pundits on the right and the left even declared that
cell phones and the Internet were becoming tools of political
revolution. Yet today the authoritarian leaders of Egypt are if anything
more entrenched than their predecessors were.

In their new book, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World
without Work, based on their widely circulated 2013 “Manifesto for an
Accelerationist Politics,” British cultural theorists Nick Srnicek and
Alex Williams argue that all of this needs to change. At a time when the
future seems to belong to Chicago-school economists and the Internet to
Google and the NSA, Srnicek and Williams have courageously drafted a
call to re-imagine left politics from top to bottom. Nonetheless, the
alternative vision of the left they propose in fact owes a great deal to
the neoliberal imagination it aims to challenge. Srnicek and Williams
believe that emerging technologies have laid the foundation for the kind
of egalitarian social world once promised by Lenin himself. To bring
that world into being, they argue, we need not to resist but to
accelerate the development of new technologies and the spread of
capitalism. And they are not alone. In the last two years, a vigorous
debate has bubbled up in England, where Srnicek and Williams live, and
spilled over into the tech-savvy enclaves of the United States. To visit
that debate may be to catch a glimpse of a new New Left emerging—or, in
the view of some of the movement’s more strident critics, the final
triumph of techno-libertarianism.

One thing that Srnicek and Williams make abundantly clear is that the
tactics the left has inherited from the social movements of the 1960s
and 1970s no longer work. The antiglobalization actions of the 1990s,
various student uprisings in Europe and North Africa, and, above all,
the Occupy Movement in the United States—Srnicek and Williams argue that
all have failed because of the left’s preoccupation with what they call,
with the hint of a sneer, “folk politics.” This mode emerged in the late
1960s and early 1970s, they write, from roots in anarchism, autonomism,
and various forms of communism. In their view, the last 50 years have
seen “the collapse of the traditional organizations of the left, and the
simultaneous rise of an alternative new left predicated upon critiques
of bureaucracy, verticality, exclusion and institutionalization.” This
new New Left loathes all forms of top-down power, revels in consensus
decision making, and believes in direct action. Above all, it hopes that
its own local democratic processes might be a model for a new, more
democratic social order at scale.

As Srnicek and Williams note, such an ethos has produced relatively
little in the way of lasting change—at least in social structure. The
case of Occupy is particularly instructive. Many participants have
described how gathering together in public squares, debating public
issues, and shouting together in the Human Megaphone made them feel
politically powerful, often for the first time. And few would deny that
the Occupier’s famous phrase—“We are the 99 percent!”—shaped public
debate for months to come. But where are the structural changes that
Occupy has wrought? What congressmen are beholden to the Occupiers in
the way that so many are to the Tea Party?

According to Srnicek and Williams, the logic of Folk Politics has
prevented movements like Occupy from evolving into something more than a
string of ephemeral protests. A faith in horizontal organizations, local
action, and the transformative potential of immediacy is all well and
good, they write, but almost by definition, it prevents the emergence of
large-scale, well-organized forces that claim and hold institutional and
financial territory. Folk Politics also reflect a failure to accept a
series of truths about capitalism and modernity, they argue. The first
of these is that capitalism is omnivorous. Srnicek and Williams note
that, as Marx pointed out, capitalism devours almost all social forms in
its way. This means that efforts to create local enclaves of, say,
ethical consumerism or horizontal, extra-market social relations, are
ultimately bound to fail. For all their emphasis on bottom-up reform,
such efforts can do little to prevent the commodification of experience,
the expansion of inequality, and the ever-extended need to turn social
life toward financially profitable ends.

Anyone who has visited the cheese boutiques of San Francisco will
recognize the truth of this critique. Even as the city hosts an
ever-growing flock of charcuteries, hipster barbershops, and artisanal
groceries, the rich young technologists who use them have been steadily
pushing the poor out of their apartments. But this is where Srnicek and
Williams take an unexpected turn. Rather than try to resist the forces
of technology and capitalism, they urge us to embrace them. Or more
specifically, they argue that in fact the only way to escape the maw of
the consumer society is to accelerate the engines driving it. The left
must do what the neoliberal right has done: it must celebrate the
liberating tendencies of capitalism; it must take advantage of the
ever-more-social affordances of new technologies; and it must help the
world imagine both as sources of social improvement.

________The alternative vision of the left proposed by Srnicek and
Williams in fact owes a great deal to the neoliberal imagination it aims
to challenge.____________

Given the failures of conventional left movements in recent years,
Srnicek and Williams’s call to imitate the tactics of the far more
successful New Right makes a certain amount of sense. As they note,
capitalism is a complex global phenomenon, a creature of banks and
states, digitized financial flows, global transportation networks, and
transcontinental media systems, all defended by border police of various
kinds. Thanks largely to the work of the Mont Pelerin Society, a network
of economists and fellow travelers first convened by Friedrich Hayek in
1947, the neoliberal right has built a coherent ideological framework
that takes into account the full range of capitalist activity. In other
words, they explain, neoliberalism scales. In the hands of neoliberal
ideologues, for instance, Schumpeter’s notion of “creative destruction”
becomes something that individuals can do (as entrepreneurs), that
companies can do (through innovation), and that even whole economies
experience (in cycles of growth and recession). Neoliberalism seems to
“work” at every level of individual and collective experience. To match
its power, Srnicek and Williams argue, the left will need to build its
own version of the Mont Pelerin group and spread its own alternative
vision of the future.

Imitating neoliberal tactics is one thing; arguing that commerce and
technology will bring about utopia is another. Srnicek and Williams want
both. And they don’t think conventional politics is the way to get it.
Instead, they hope to build “a post-work society” by “fully automating
the economy, reducing the working week, implementing a universal basic
income, and achieving a cultural shift in the understanding of work.”
For Srnicek and Williams, the central problem with capitalism is not the
inequality it produces, nor the ways it intersects with longstanding
patterns of racism and nationalism, but rather the hoary problem of
labor. For generations, they write, the left has “sought to liberate
humanity from the drudgery of work, the dependence on wage labor, and
submission of our lives to a boss.” New technologies allow us to build
“a postcapitalist and post-work platform upon which multiple ways of
living could emerge and flourish.”

Here Srnicek and Williams resurrect the ancient ghost of romanticism and
marry it to a Marxist critique of labor in a way that would be quite
familiar to the American counterculture of the 1960s. First, they
describe virtually all labor as a species of spiritual subjection. We
have authentic selves, they argue, and to work for wages, we must leave
our authentic desires at home. Such a view also animated the American
communards of the 1960s. After all, the point of a commune was to bridge
work and home so as to make it possible to be “authentic” at all times.
Second, Srnicek and Williams misinterpret an important aspect of
contemporary labor. They note that a 2013 Gallup poll showed that only
13 percent of workers worldwide find their work “engaging.” In their
view, the survey provides evidence of global alienation. Yet Gallup
conducted the survey for a group of CEOs who were quite likely seeking
to make work more engaging precisely so as to draw out and monetize ever
more of their workers’ inner selves. Today, levels of engagement at work
measure not so much workers’ ability to achieve psychological
authenticity on the job as they do the ability of employers to integrate
the psychological needs of employees into the work process. Employers
want their employees to be authentic at work. The more work feels like
home, the more and better work employees will do.

Oddly enough, Srnicek and Williams seem quite comfortable with top-down
management. In one of their book’s strangest passages, they invoke the
computerized management system known as “Cybersyn” as an emblem of the
future they hope for. Cybersyn was designed and partially built for
Salvador Allende’s socialist government in Chile in the early 1970s.1 It
featured a command center that resembled the bridge of the Star Trek
Enterprise. Like Captain Kirk and his officers, leaders were to sit
together watching information stream in from around the nation, and to
act on what they saw. Srnicek and Williams see today’s digital
technologies as tools with similar potential. In order to free our
individual desires, they claim, we need to automate all the work we can,
manage that automation together using systems like Cybersyn, and so
build a flexible postcapitalist economy in which we work when we want
to, love when we want to, and all in all, “create new modes of being.”

If this sounds more than a little like a marketing campaign for Uber, it
should. This is the same logic that drives the rhetoric of the sharing
economy. And that should make us nervous. New digital platforms really
are making work patterns more flexible and automation really is
replacing (some) drudgery. Yet, marketers’ claims notwithstanding, they
have hardly brought us a new era of social sharing. Instead, they’ve
marketized ever smaller segments of time and transformed formerly
private resources (such as your car) into potential sources of profit.
You of course bear the responsibility for capitalizing those resources
(buying and maintaining the car) and getting the training to use them
(learning to drive). For all their vaunted computer power, companies
like Uber, Airbnb, and TaskRabbit are essentially traditional service
brokers. And the vision of sharing that underlies them belongs more to
the legacy of Friedrich Hayek than of Karl Marx.

Srnicek and Williams are blinded by their faith in all things digital.
To consider automation only in terms of its ability to replace onerous
labor is wondrously naive. Who will build the machines? Manage them? Say
we succeed in building a new Cybersyn. Who will sit in the armchairs of
command? As the current rage for Donald Trump reminds us, leaders need
hardly be rational, disinterested public servants. And what will become
of those who never reach the centers of command? Or should I say, what
will become of us? How will we speak back to power? Will we become the
political equivalent of Uber drivers, communicating with central powers
only through the data our work throws off?

Some of Srnicek and Williams’s future is indeed enticing, particularly
the notion of a universal basic income. And their willingness to crack
open the door of left theory to embrace the sometimes liberating power
of capitalism does offer an alternative to the Folk Politics they
rightly critique. Yet, as two other important volumes point out, that
door has been opened before, and not always with liberating results.

Robin Mackay and Armen Avanessian’s #Accelerate reprints two dozen
essays and book sections written between the mid-19th century and today.
In a wide-ranging introduction, the editors make the case that
contemporary accelerationists belong to a long-neglected left
intellectual tradition. “Accelerationism is a political heresy,” they
write. “The insistence that the only radical political response to
capitalism is … to accelerate its uprooting, alienating, decoding,
abstractive tendencies” would seem, they suggest, to violate the
founding principles of left politics. But that would be wrong, according
to Mackay and Avanessian, who cite and reprint Marx’s “Fragment on
Machines” from the Grundrisse in reply. There Marx describes a process
by which capital, embodied in the machines of production, draws the
living labor of workers into itself. In Marx’s account, automated
machines work on behalf of capital to turn men into mere prostheses.
Mackay and Avanessian take this to be a good thing. For Mackay and
Avanessian, the best way to supersede capitalism is to become one with
its machines.

____the same devices that are slowly choking off our ability to act in
the world without their help have also offered us extraordinary

The “Fragment on Machines” notwithstanding, Marx might well have taken
issue with their view. In Das Kapital he argues that the centralization
of capital and of production will come into conflict with the social
relations that support them and capitalism will crumble from there.2 In
the Marx of Das Kapital, conflicts between men, machines, and money pave
the road for revolution; in Mackay and Avanessian’s introduction, the
fusion of men and machines into something new is the revolution. In many
ways Mackay and Avanessian’s vision of accelerationism’s postcapitalist
effects derives from the readings of two bodies of philosophy. The first
emerged in France in the early 1970s, when theorists like Deleuze and
Guattari and Lyotard aimed to synthesize Marx and Freud. These critics
sought to escape Marxist dialectics and to suggest that, in Mackay and
Avanessian’s words, “emancipation from capitalism be sought … by way of
the polymorphous perversion set free by the capitalist machine itself.”
The machine, these critics wrote, would free us to create what Mackay
and Avanessian call “a new fluid social body.”

As Mackay and Avanessian note, such work helped set the stage for Donna
Haraway’s celebration of the feminist cyborg in the United States and
for the autonomist Marxism of Antonio Negri and Tiziana Terranova in
Italy. But it also helped give rise to the reveries of Nick Land and the
Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU) at the University of Warwick in
England, which Land founded with cyber-theorist Sadie Plant. In the
mid-1990s, Land and Plant played an ecstatic prose accompaniment to the
rise of the public Internet. A random sample, from the CCRU collective’s
essay “Swarmachines,” which Mackay and Avanessian reprint: “Jungle
rewinds and reloads conventional time into silicon blips of speed and
slowness that combust the slag-heaps of historical carbon-dating.”

This was the kind of thing that seemed to make sense about the time
Wired magazine first appeared on corporate coffee tables. It was also
quite right-wing. “The past is passed,” wrote the CCRU collective. “The
eternally deferred eschatologies of the left are consigned to the white
trash-can of the future and leave a present tense with synthetic
possibilities.” Clumsy wordplay aside, the writers of the CCRU saw in
the emerging digital matrix much what John Perry Barlow did: a new
frontier on which they could leave their fleshy bodies and even politics
itself behind. They dismissed not only Folk Politics, but all left
politics. They embraced the logic of creative destruction—not only as an
economic project, but as an aesthetic, and in raves at least, as a
lifestyle too.

To British cultural theorist Benjamin Noys, the members of the CCRU had
fallen under the spell of “Deleuzian Thatcherism.” Noys is widely
credited with having coined the term “accelerationism” in his 2010
volume of critical philosophy, The Persistence of the Negative. His
recent Malign Velocities presents a sustained and stinging rereading of
the history mapped out by Mackay and Avanessian. Like them, Noys points
to 19th- and early 20th-century Marxism and Futurism and to early 1970s
French philosophy as key sources of accelerationist ideals. Yet he reads
both very differently. He reminds us that Lenin himself embraced the
management theories of Frederick Taylor and dreamed of a world in which
productivity gains would free workers to relax. Noys notes that such
policies resulted not in universal leisure, but in the Kafka-esque
machinations of Soviet bureaucracy. Returning to the reveries of the
Italian Futurists, their love of speed and the automobile, Noys reminds
his readers of their deep misogyny and their affection for Fascism.

As Noys points out, these first accelerationists did much more than fail
to spark a populist revolution; they actually helped legitimate the
technologies of domination in place today. Noys saves his harshest
criticism for the French theorists of the 1970s, and for the CCRU. In
the social unrest of 1968, he argues, the French left saw their hopes
for an anticapitalist revolution raised and dashed. In response,
thinkers such as Baudrillard, Lyotard, and Deleuze and Guattari turned
their frustration into celebration. They not only accepted their
inability to escape capitalism; they reveled in it. They dreamed of
individuals who could melt into the libidinal slipstream of media
spectacles and consumer delights. Like the Marx of the “Fragment on
Machines,” they dreamed of human beings who could become one with their

In the 1990s, Nick Land and Sadie Plant promoted the same dreams, writes
Noys, this time to a techno beat. Noys is not content to attack
accelerationism as a philosophy. He also takes its aesthetics to task.
Land and Plant wrote at the same moment that Kraftwerk and Detroit
techno could be heard from London to Berlin. Such artists seduced
listeners into a fantasy of becoming one with machine systems, of giving
over their agency and taking pleasure in complete submission, argues
Noys. Like the essays of the CCRU, the music appeared to herald an “exit
from feeling and consciousness,” and this, writes Noys, is the true
promise underpinning accelerationism. For all its talk of a
technology-enabled socialist utopia, accelerationism actually offers
little more than a steep dive down a nihilist rabbit hole.

Here Noys picks up on an essential paradox of accelerationism, and in
fact of many ostensibly left-leaning, technology-embracing social
movements. The same devices that are slowly choking off our ability to
act in the world without their help have also offered us extraordinary
pleasures. With our iPhones in our pockets, we can find out almost
anything, instantly. We can summon the sounds of Muddy Waters and Django
Reinhardt alongside Devo and Talking Heads. We see pictures of places
whose names we’ve only just heard. And we can send them to people we’ve
only just met. Much as the Italian Futurists did when they first drove
off in cars, we have every reason to marvel at the new speed in the world.

Yet as the Futurists themselves have taught us, the dream of machines
that will speed us away from everyday life can just as easily open the
road to fascism as to democracy. In their rush to celebrate the benefits
of automation, Srnicek and Williams have forgotten this history. Lenin
may have turned to Taylorism to ease the lives of peasants, and the
founders of the CCRU may have embraced Schumpeterian creative
destruction in order to experience a technocentric form of ecstasy. Yet
neither approach substantially improved the prospects for a more
egalitarian social world. On the contrary, one set the stage for Stalin
and the other helped legitimate Margaret Thatcher.

To their credit, Srnicek and Williams do not ask us to dissolve into
digital ones and zeros, as John Perry Barlow once did. Their call for a
universal basic income makes a kind of grounded sense that has eluded
earlier accelerationists. So too does their critique of Folk Politics.
Yet, the problem of politics writ large remains. How can we build a more
just, more egalitarian society when our devices already surround us with
so many of the personalized delights we might want such a society to
offer? Meetings are boring. Talking to people unlike ourselves is hard.
How can we turn away from the mediasphere long enough to rediscover the
pleasures of that difficult work? And how can we sustain it when we do?

To these kinds of questions, the accelerationists have no answers.


Fred Turner is Harry and Norman Chandler Professor of Communication
at Stanford University. He is the author, most recently, of The
Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World
War II to the Psychedelic Sixties. You can find more of his work at

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