Decapitalism, Left Scarcity, and the State
I want to address four main oversights and weaknesses, as I see them, of the accelerationist project as it currently stands.1 I will mostly be drawing on the texts gathered together in The Accelerationist Reader, published last year,2 as well as some of the responses to it, including Benjamin Noys’s Malign Velocities: Acceleration and Capitalism (2014) and texts by McKenzie Wark. The four areas I will discuss are 1) labour, 2) the sequence of the development of technology vis-à-vis revolutionary transformation, 3) questions of temporal and geographical scale, and, to conclude, 4) the persistence of the repressive elements of the state in the global capitalist picture.
Against the image of the “modern technosocial body” that Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams hold up as the bearer of lost possible futures, I want to emphasize at moments throughout this text another strand of thinking that we might call a theory of “left scarcity,” as represented by the late Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960) and also by Ivan Illich’s rather more obscure Energy and Equity (1973).3 While Srnicek and Williams acknowledge the “breakdown of the planetary climate system,” their discussion of absence and lack as a methodological principle is mainly confined to a critique of the left—or their image of it, at any rate—from the last thirty or so years, and of the supposed “staggering lack of imagination” of our time.4 This image of lack (their version of scarcity) is, I think, predicated on an idealist image of political discourse as “speculative thought” that ultimately fails to connect up the modes of conceptual scarcity specific to capitalism and politics under capitalism with the material forces and institutions that inhibit such thoughts. As opposed to the vague calls for more imagination—of which, contra most accelerationists, I actually think we have more of than ever, just not the power to enforce it—I think it makes more sense to map material, rather than conceptual, scarcity at all levels from a left perspective. This is not simply reducible to miserabilism or finitude-mongering, or whatever other insults get conflated under the general heading of “enemies of acceleration.”
This is not, however, to unconditionally posit a drab decelerationist program against the excitement of a futural technophilia, but to reconfigure the terms on which the debate takes place and to serve as a reminder that there are counter-histories to a narrative of relentlessness that at times sees technology as detached from energy and the consumption of energy (usually of finite resources), as if technology is somehow autonomous and self-moving. And we can note that Karl Marx’s almost breathless, frictionless image of the automatic system of machinery as “a moving power that moves itself”5 is partly responsible for this. As Noys puts it, this description of the machine feeds into “capitalism’s own fantasies of self-engendering production.”6 Less deus ex machina than deus sive machina. I want to note, by way of Wark, in his critique of accelerationism, “that the forces of production are also energy systems,”7 and agree with his point that that the replacement of human energy with fossil-fuel energy is central to the history of capitalism’s development. As Illich puts it in Energy and Equity, there is a direct relation between social form and energy use: “High quanta of energy degrade social relations just as inevitably as they destroy the physical milieu.”8
The free-floating spaceship as the speculative horizon of a non-earth-bound post-capitalist accelerationism can be read as a fantasy, albeit a cool one, but also a desire for a lack of dependency, whether it be upon finite terrestrial resources or the labour of others. Celestial fetishism and its self-spinning heavenly machines can also be read as a desire for a perpetual-motion machine in place of, or rather comprising, a permanent revolution, a kind of resistanceless infinite burst of invention. I want to place in opposition to this smooth accelerated image of technology in post-capitalist, post-terrestrial space an idea of “decapitalism” rather than “anti-capitalism,” the latter too tainted by Srnicek and Williams’s dismissive critique of “the folk politics of localism, direct action and relentless horizontalism.”9 What I am proposing as “decapitalism” is linguistically and conceptually like Illich’s idea of “deschooling,” but also similar to “decolonization”: the point is to take back what is left, along with the technologies that have contributed to despoliation and exploitation, and turn it back against this same destruction. This does not depend upon a “going through” capitalism to get to the other side, but rather involves cutting off the heads of those who control technology—decapitating capitalism, as it were. This proposed redistribution of an already highly advanced series of technologies (industrial, communicative, medical) does not imply some kind of neo-Luddism, but rather a recognition of what resources already exist and a mapping of production, consumption, and the amount of time it would take, say, to clean polluted waters or to distribute food adequately. This project of decapitalism is not, then, a call for slowing down, a call as open to recapture as acceleration itself (and I appreciate Srnicek and Williams’s attempt to detach acceleration from speed in this respect), but rather a beginning with a recognition of the damage and depletion that has been done and continues to be done, without lapsing into fatalist despair or a desire to fuse with machines, capitalism, and technology and somehow come out the other side (as what?). The version of decapitalism I’m describing starts by recognizing that which is often hidden in plain sight but without which systems, both capitalist and communist, would fall apart. I’ll begin with labour.
Noys identifies the desire of accelerationism in a variety of its historical and contemporary incarnations to “reengage with the problem of labour as this impossible and masochistic experience by reintegrating labour into the machine.”10 Noys characteristically reads this desire for reintegration as a symptom rather than as a solution. Patricia Reed, too, suggests that acceleration already drives apparatuses of violent value-extraction: from the experiential level of our working lives and the exploitation of increased production, to the algorithms that decidedly wager on value with a velocity far surpassing the speed of human intellection.11 It is clear that even if we wanted to, we would have a hard time keeping up with the contemporary “machine,” and besides, we should note from the outset the sublime asymmetries of contemporary relations to the machine. Although Srnicek and Williams bemoan the fact that “rather than a world of space travel, future shock, and revolutionary technological potential, we exist in a time where the only thing which develops is marginally better consumer gadgetry,”12 they fail to note that those who labour to produce such consumer gadgetry and those that consume it are at rather different ends of the sharp edge of capitalism’s own version of accelerationism.
While Srnicek and Williams’s call for a “politics at ease with a modernity of abstraction, complexity, globality and technology,”13 it seems to me as part of this politics that a global conception of labour cannot but immediately confront the way in which the asymmetries of the machines themselves—and indeed the different kinds of machines, from the sewing machines of sweatshops to high-frequency trading terminals—currently play out. When Antonio Negri in his response to Srnicek and Williams describes “the shift from the hegemony of material labour to the hegemony of immaterial labour,”14 he and the writers of “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics” have already bought into an image of labour that fails to capture the reality of both industrial and postindustrial service work, the latter of which might use machines no more complex than a mop or a coffee machine and which depends on highly embodied, deeply material, and emotional modes of exploitation. Pure, bloodless information work is much rarer than the discourse of the immaterial might imply.
But the more historical point I want to make here is the limitations of imagining that technology can solve the problems of labour, even assuming its detachment from capitalism. (In Marx’s words: “It does not at all follow that subsumption under the social relation of capital is the most appropriate and ultimate social relation of production for the application of machinery.”15) A moment’s reflection demonstrates that large amounts of labour are unable to be integrated into the machine from the start, under capitalism but also under the accelerationist image of post-capitalist technology.
As Silvia Federici puts it in an article about the deeply non-accelerationist subject of “elder care”: Typical of the limits of Marx’s perspective is his vision of the last stage of capitalist production as articulated in the famous Fragment on the Machines, in the Grundrisse, where he projects a world in which machines do all the work and human beings only tend to them, functioning as their supervisors. Whether understood as a utopia or a dystopia, this picture ignores in fact that, even in advanced capitalist countries, much of the socially necessary labour consists of reproductive activities and this work has proven not to be easily replaced by mechanisation. Only in part can the needs and desires of non self-sufficient older people, or people requiring medical assistance, be addressed by incorporating technologies into the work by which they are reproduced.16
Incidentally, we might note that one contemporary relation to the idea of going “beyond finitude”—a desire shared by many of the accelerationists—is the matter of aging populations. Here death becomes more and more a bureaucratic and technocratic event, and often unwilling bodies are kept alive in a state of barely existing limbo. This situation we have to recognize as a form of accelerationism, a kind of remodelling and remaking of human finitude itself.
The neglect of reproductive work by Marx and Marxists alike both for capital accumulation and for any communist project rears its head again in the accelerationist program. The freeing up of labour time that the post-capitalist machine promises, or even the Keynesian image of massively reduced working hours, must first confront some basic questions about social reproduction and the majority of non-high-tech service work: What would it mean to delegate care work to machines? To act as if we could simply eliminate physical and emotional human contact via technics? To conceive of and raise children through technology alone? This was the wager of Shulamith Firestone’s project, and the topic of my next section.
Technology and Revolution
Firestone’s inclusion in the pantheon of historical accelerationist figures is perhaps not surprising, given her turbo-Enlightenmental approach to the emancipatory dimensions of technology. Yet one of the weaknesses in Firestone’s account of the relationship between technology and revolution can also be seen as a weakness or an oversight in the accelerationist project as a whole. When Srnicek and Williams suggest, against pure techno-utopianism, that “technology and the social are intimately bound up with one another, and changes in either potentiate and reinforce changes in the other” and that “technology should be accelerated precisely because it is needed in order to win social conflicts,”17 they hedge their bets somewhat—but this vagueness points to a more serious problem that afflicts any attempt to extract the emancipatory potential of technology from its sequential historical development under capitalism. Firestone is the precursor case in point here: at points in the Dialectic of Sex (1970) she writes as if scientific progress will be the catalyst for social change, and at others as if cultural shifts must predate the progressive implementation of scientific developments. The first position leaves her, and other accelerationists, open to accusations of technological determinism; the second, to free-floating utopianism. Neither adequately addresses the state of the world as we find it.
Firestone is quite unique among both feminists and twentieth-century intellectuals in her unconstrained love of the machine, which she alternatively names as “cybernetics,” “empirical science,” or “technology,” claiming “full mastery of the reproductive process is in sight” and speaking of the “acceleration” of scientific understanding of human functions.18 Indeed, there is something futurist about her commitment to the transparencies and totalizations of science, despite futurism’s own misogyny and its desire to consign women and their wombs to a dead era to be replaced by speed, war, and chaos. As F. T. Marinetti puts it in the 1909 “Futurist Manifesto”: “We want to glorify war—the only cure for the world—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.”19 However, the telos of Firestone’s vision is not of war, as it was for many of the futurists, but of a holistic, expanded notion of culture itself, and this is the Firestone that the left accelerationists approve of: “The merging of the aesthetic with...technological culture is the precondition of a cultural revolution.”20 Fusing the aesthetic with the technological (which Firestone somewhat bluntly describes as female and male modes) will create an “androgynous culture” that will cause a kind of “matter-antimatter explosion” cancelling out culture altogether. “The id can live free,” she writes, ecstatically.21
There is, however, a lack of clarity in both Firestone and the accelerationists about the order of this revolution and this id-driven future to come. Will technological progress determinately destroy institutions on its own, or will political organization need to take over technology beforehand? Can we trust that the inner development of technology will unfold in the “correct” way, or that technophiliac revolutionaries, for that matter, will seize control of the means of scientific production and immediately redirect its possibilities in a revolutionary way—in Firestone’s mind, to clear the way for the liberation through technology of the link between human biology and human destiny? We can certainly see that the capitalist development of reproductive technologies—in vitro fertilization, for example—has not corresponded to a disintegration of the nuclear family form; quite the contrary, in fact.
Ultimately, it is clear that without political organization predicated on a material assessment of the current state of the planet, any relation to technology will either be overly conditioned by that technology itself or will bear no relation to ultimate speculative desires (the free-floating spaceship, the artificial womb). Politics mediates nature and technology, and has to if progressive or revolutionary projects are to be advanced. While Srnicek and Williams do of course outline a political program of sorts in the form of a “Promethean politics of maximal mastery over society and its environment”22 and a repurposing or “reorientation,” to cite Reed, of financial, logistical, and consumer platforms, it seems to me that accelerationism as a whole as yet lacks an understanding of the order or sequence of the relationship between technology, the temporalities engendered by technology, and the post-capitalist horizon.
To continue this thinking of horizons and scale, there is a further comment I want to make in relation to this problem of sequence, and that is with regard to the scale of the accelerationist project. The emphasis on the inhuman and the residual presence or absence of a political or human subject of some kind clearly separates out elements of right and left accelerationism, but there often seems to be an unacknowledged aesthetic-libidinal element to the celebration of the inhuman that plays out in rhetorically hyperbolic-apocalyptic fantasies whereby the end of capitalism is confused for the end of the world, and the concomitant end of humanity, for example. As Alberto Toscano puts it, there is a gap between the aesthetic payoff, which is the most disavowed, narcissistic, humanist thing you could want. “Enjoying the death of the universe”: is there anything more pitifully human? On the one hand, there is this idea that that this is going to be really exciting, that speed is something you can experience, that destruction is something you can experience, and then on the other hand, the disappointing day-to-day reality of sausage patties and various other things.23
There is a desire for the spaceship, a desire to blame those who prevent you from getting the spaceship (the dour left’s placards combined with capitalism’s cyclical boredoms, perhaps), and a desire for a bit of excitement. Nothing wrong with that—but, as Toscano puts it: It’s a position that simply states things about the world because it would be more exciting for the world to be like that, rather than because there is anything which seems to give purchase to that account. And that might be mobilizing, cynically speaking, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into anything that would be recognisably a theory. I agree that compared to some of the homilies of left moralism, there’s a mobilizing kick to this, but it’s at a purely ideological level....I wouldn’t say it’s an interesting theory.24
An interesting question to ask here, instead of what an accelerationist theory might be, is what it would mean to generate an accelerationist aesthetic that would be genuinely politically mobilizing: Could an interplanetary communism of future techno-humans be enough to get disaffected youth to vote for universal basic income as a transitional demand on the way to our cosmic workless future? Rather than scale at the level of the universe, I want to turn now to scale at the level of the universal, toward a reason that would blow any sense of “human” scale out of the water.
In this regard, I want to briefly examine some of the claims for Prometheanism made by Ray Brassier in his 2014 piece “Prometheanism and Its Critics.” Against what he describes as the “sentimentalism that perpetuates the most objectionable characteristics of our existence”25—by which he means those who advocate a scaling down of political and cognitive ambition, those who are committed to local, “temporally fleeting enclaves of civil justice” as opposed to universal justice and equality, those who oppose the remaking of the world, those who stress equilibrium, fragility, and human finitude, phenomenologists, theologians, resigners of all kinds, and so on—Brassier places a Promethean reason that “consists in destroying the equilibrium between the made and the given”26 and that overcomes the opposition between reason and imagination (although, as a side note, we could arguably say that this is precisely what capitalism does already, in the form of Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction”).
I am hugely sympathetic to Brassier’s conception of reason and the scale of his image of Prometheanism, but I am unclear as to why a recognition of the current existence of factual individual death is at odds with a reason that is infinite and that breaks with the claim that “there is no reason to assume a predetermined limit to what we can achieve or to the ways in which we can transform ourselves and our world.”27 From Immanuel Kant’s political work to Ludwig Feuerbach’s thinking of species, there is no contradiction between a destabilizing, ambitious Promethean reason that exists at the level of the species and the death of individual members of this species: in other words, there is something both immortal and finite about humanity at the same time. While Brassier criticizes those who ontologize biological facts as “theological,” it strikes me as far more theological to push for a pure immortality (of knowledge or the soul or otherwise) rather than conceiving of reason as a faculty split between the vertical and the horizontal elements of individual and species existence. I have no problem thinking both that I will die and that reason is a monstrous futural accumulation of theories and knowledge that will hopefully continue to tell us how insignificant we are. As Sartre puts it in the Critique of Dialectical Reason: The mere possibility that a cooling of the sun might stop History—is enough to constitute [the individual] as an exteriority in relation to his history. For in this case he will not complete it, but neither will he be destroyed by it (as would happen if an atomic war were to cause the disappearance of humanity). So History becomes the undertaking you pursue all other things being equal, and whose chances of succeeding...depend upon the maintenance of a status quo in at least this sector of the Universe.28
Brassier’s argument that “the assumption of equilibrium” is theological is similarly curious: of course, if we are still working to a “blueprint” model of God or nature as harmony, then the argument holds. But it seems to me that both these images of equilibrium have already been superseded by scientific approaches to this question that are fundamentally predicated on the constructed, technological quality of any “balance”—i.e., we already know exactly what pollution does to air quality and to human and non-human life expectancy; we understand that more equitable food and drug distribution is entirely technologically and logistically possible, were it not for markets and governments skewing the picture, etc. As Illich puts it in Energy and Equity: “A ceiling on energy use can lead to social relations that are characterised by high levels of equity....Only participatory democracy creates the conditions for rational technology.”29 Although Illich comes in for particular attack in Brassier’s piece, accused of obsessing over the “ineliminable constants” of the human condition such as pain and death and of promoting a reasonableness at odds with reason’s own cruel power, it is Illich who focuses on precisely the constructed nature of equilibrium and the manifest ways by which political organization plays a key role in the way in which reason unfolds. In fact, I can’t really think of anyone who holds that “there is a ‘way of the world,’ a ready-made world whose order is simply to be accepted as an ultimately unintelligible, brute given,” as Brassier puts it.30 Even most Christians are committed to the idea that the world is fundamentally corrupt and needs fixing. Prometheus surely has better things to do with his time than to worry about the miserabilism of theologians of any stripe—stealing from the gods without bothering to pretend they exist.
Conclusion: Capital and the State
One final brief concluding point I want to flag up in the accelerationist work to date is an absence of thinking about the way in which the state continues to persist and how the state, or rather specific states, operates both in relation to capital but also in terms of repression. As the welfare components of the state are dismantled in a shockingly accelerated way in the UK and elsewhere, we are left merely with the repressive state apparatus: police, courts, prisons. We have not quite moved from disciplinary societies to societies of control. In fact, we have ended up with uneven and increasingly punitive examples of both, where surveilled surplus populations are left to their own fate or incarcerated or both. Rather than attack the left—whoever they are—as the “Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics” does, for their supposed lack of imagination, as if it were merely a matter of a lack of will, it would be a necessary step to examine in detail the way in which the state goes out of its way to prevent even the most minimal forms of opposition, from undercover spying, to political prosecution, to the use of police bail, to protest tactics, to jail, and so on. You may not care about the state, being interested only in a capitalism that supposedly transcends borders, but the state sure as hell cares about you the moment you step one inch beyond remarkably circumscribed boundaries. If reformist welfare policies such as universal basic income are the ones that a left accelerationism desires to put forward, it needs to think carefully about the way in which this plays out both in terms of being a national or global demand—and of course the latter is much more radical, reintroducing a notion of internationalism in the frame, as opposed to the ubiquitous concept of the “global,” a term far more acceptable to capitalism than “internationalism” could ever be—and also in terms of imagining how practically one would campaign and win on this issue. If the left lacks ideas and is forced to operate in a scarce world, both conceptually and materially, it is because of the sheer amount of time and resources ploughed into keeping it this way. As a political project, accelerationist or otherwise, this would mean confronting both the state and capital, without ignoring the violence of either.
- This text is based on a paper presented at the Radical Philosophy Conference, Berlin, January 16, 2015.
- Robin Mackay and Armen Avanessian, eds., #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader (Falmouth: Urbanomic; Berlin: Merve Verlag, 2014).
- Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, 2 vols., trans. Quintin Hoare (London: Verso, 2006). Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity (New York: Harper & Row, 1974).
- Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics,” in The Accelerationist Reader, 361.
- Karl Marx, “Fragment on Machines,” in The Accelerationist Reader, 53.
- Benjamin Noys, Malign Velocities: Acceleration and Capitalism (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2014), 35.
- McKenzie Wark, “#Accelerate in Reverse,” Public Seminar Commons, October 2, 2014, http://fillip.ca/4fhw.
- Illich, Energy and Equity, 3.
- Srnicek and Williams, “Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics,” 354.
- Noys, Malign Velocities, 12.
- Patricia Reed, “Reorientate, Eccentricate, Speculate, Fictionalize, Geometricize, Commonize, Abstractify: Seven Prescriptions for Accelerationism,” in The Accelerationist Reader, 525.
- Srnicek and Williams, “Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics,” 355.
- Ibid., 354.
- Antonio Negri, “Some Reflections on the #Accelerate Manifesto,” in The Accelerationist Reader, 368.
- Marx, “Fragment on Machines,” 57.
- Silvia Federici, “Notes on Elder Care Work and the Limits of Marxism,” in Beyond Marx: Theorising the Gender Labour Relations of the Twenty-first Century (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 245–46.
- Srnicek and Williams, “Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics,” 356.
- Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (New York: Bantam, 1970), 180.
- F. T. Marinetti, “The Futurist Manifesto,” 1909, http://fillip.ca/mon5.
- Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex, 166.
- Ibid., 182.
- Srnicek and Williams, “Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics,” 360.
- Alberto Toscano, comment after “Accelerationism” panel, September 14, 2010, http://fillip.ca/aex3.
- Ray Brassier, “Prometheanism and Its Critics,” in The Accelerationist Reader, 487.
- Ibid., 478.
- Ibid., 470.
- Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, 306.
- Illich, Energy and Equity, 17.
- Brassier, “Prometheanism and Its Critics,” 485.
About the Author
Nina Power is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Roehampton and Tutor in Critical Writing in Art and Design at the Royal College of Art. She has written widely on European philosophy and politics.