The discipline of Philosophy has been part of Western Culture for two and a half millennia now, from the time of the rise of the Greek city states to the present day. Interestingly, a new philosophical system often arises in anticipation of new directions for society and for history. Thus the Stoicism of Zeno and Epictetus prepared the elite of the Mediterranean world for the emerging Roman imperium with its wealth and with its centralization of political and military power. The philosophy of St. Augustine locked Western Christianity into a stern theology which served as an anchor throughout the Middle Ages and then as a guide for reformers Wycliffe, Luther and Calvin. The philosopher Descartes defined the scientific method and the scientific revolution followed in Europe. Hegel and Marx applied dialectical thinking to human history and economics as the industrial revolution created class warfare between labor and capital. The logical philosophy of Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell set the stage for the work of Alan Turing and thence the ensuing computer software revolution.
Existentialism (with its rich literary culture of novels and plays, its cafės, its subterranean jazz clubs, its Gauloise cigarettes) steeled people for life in a Europe made absurd by two world wars and it paved the way for second wave feminism: Simone de Beauvoir’s magistral work of 1949 The Second Sex (Le Deuxieme Sexe) provided that existentialist rallying cry for women to take charge of their own lives: “One is not born a woman; one becomes a woman.” (On ne naît pas femme, on le devient.)
By the 1960s, however, French intellectual life was dominated by structuralism, a social science methodology which looks at society as very much a static field that is built on the persistent forms that characterize it. Even Marxist philosophers like Louis Althusser were now labeled structuralists. To some extent, structuralism’s influence was due to the brilliant writing of its practitioners, e.g. semiologist Roland Barthes and anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss: brilliance was certainly required to interest readers in the mathematical structure of kinship systems such as matrilateral cross-cousin marriage – an algorithm to maximize genetic diversity employed by small population groups.
Today the intellectual movement which most resembles past philosophical beacons of the future is known as Accelerationism. As a philosophy, Accelerationism has its roots in France in the period after the May ’68 student and worker uprising. The movement led to barricades and fighting in the streets of Paris and to the largest general strike in the history of Europe. All of which brought the government to the bargaining table; the students and workers counted on the left-wing leadership of labor unions and Marxist oriented political parties to strike a deal for freedom and radical social progress to lead to a post-capitalist world. Instead this “leadership” was interested in more seats in parliament and incremental improvements – not any truly revolutionary change in society.
The take-away from May ’68 for Gilles Deleuze, Fėlix Guattari, Jean-François Lyotard and other post-structuralist French intellectuals was the realization that capitalism proved itself once again too powerful, too flexible, too unstoppable; its dominance could not be challenged by society in its present form.
The paradoxical response in the 1970s then was to call for an acceleration of the development of technologies and other forces of capitalist progress to bring society as rapidly as possible to a new place. In their 1972 work Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari put it this way: “Not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to ‘accelerate the process’, as Nietzsche put it: in this matter, the truth is that we haven’t seen anything yet.” This then is the fundamental tenet of Accelerationism – push technology to get us to the point where it enables us to get out from under current society’s Iron Heel, something we cannot do now. What kind of technologies will be required for this or best suited for this and how this new world will emerge from them are, naturally, core topics of debate. One much discussed and promising (also menacing) technology is Artificial Intelligence.
Deleuze and Guattari extend the notion of the Oedipus complex beyond the nuclear family and develop schizoanalysis to account for the way modern society induces a form of schizophrenia which helps the power structure maintain the steady biological/sociological/psychological march of modern capitalism. Their Anti-Oedipus presents a truly imaginative and innovative way of looking at the world, a poetic mixture of insights fueled by ideas from myriad diverse sources; as an example, they even turn to Americans Ray Bradbury, Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, Nicholas Ray and Henry Miller and to immigrants to America Marshall McLuhan, Charles Chaplin, Wilhem Reich and Herbert Marcuse.
In The Libidinal Economy (1974), Lyotard describes events as primary processes of the human libido – again “Freud on steroids.” It is Lyotard who coined the term post-modern which has been applied to include other post-structuralists such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.
Though boldly original, Accelerationism is very much a child of continental thinking in the great European philosophical tradition, a complex modern line of thought with its own themes and conflicts: what makes it most conflicted is its schizophrenic love-hate relation to capitalism; what makes it most contemporary is its attention to the role played by new technologies; what makes it most unsettling is its nihilism, its position that there is no meaning or purpose to human life; what makes it most radical is its displacement of humanity from center-stage and its abandonment of that ancient cornerstone of Greek philosophy: “Man is the measure of all things.”
By the 1980s, the post-structuralist vision of a society in thrall to capitalism was proving prophetic. What with Thatcher, Reagan, supply-side economics, the surge of the income gap, dramatic reductions in taxes (income, corporate and estate), the twilight of the labor unions and the fall of the Berlin Wall: a stronger, more flexible, neo-liberal capitalism was emerging – a globalized post-industrial capitalism, a financial capitalism, deregulated, risk welcoming, tax avoiding, globalized, off-shoring, outsourcing, … . In a victory lap in 1989, political science professor Francis Fukuyama published The End of History; in this widely acclaimed article, Fukuyama announced that the end-point of history had been reached: market-based Western liberal democracy was the final form of human government – thus turning Marx over on his head, much the way Marx had turned Hegel over on his head! So “over” was Marxism by the 1980s that Marxist stalwart Andrė Gorz (friend of Sartre, co-founder of the Le Nouvel Observateur) declared that the proletariat was no longer the vanguard revolutionary class in his Adieux au proletariat.
With the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, in Western intellectual circles, Karl Marx and his theory of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” gave way to the Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter and his theory of capitalism’s “creative destruction”; this formula captures the churning of capitalism which systematically creates new industries and new social institutions that replace the old – e.g. Sears by Amazon, an America of farmers by an America of city dwellers. Marx argued that capitalism’s contradictions and failures would lead to its demise; Schumpeter, closer to the Accelerationists, argued that capitalism has more to fear from its triumphs: ineluctably the colossal success of capitalism hollows out the social institutions and mores which historically nurtured capitalism such as the nuclear family, church-going and the Protestant Ethic itself. Look at Western Europe today with its precipitously low birth-rate where capitalism is triumphant but where church attendance is reduced to three events: “hatch, match and dispatch,” to put it the playful way Anglicans do. But all this is not all bad from the point of view of Accelerationism – capitalism triumphant should better serve to “accelerate the process.”
At this point entering the 1990s, we have a post-Marxist, post-structuralist school of Parisian philosophical thought that is the preserve of professors, researchers, cultural critics and writers. In fact at that point in time, the movement (such as it was) was simply considered part of post-modernism and was not yet known as Accelerationism.
However, in its current form, Accelerationism has moved much closer to the futurist mainstream. Science fiction is taken very seriously as a source for insights into where things might be headed. In fact, the term Accelerationist itself originated in a 1967 sci-fi novel Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny where a group of revolutionaries wanted to take their society “to a higher level” through technology: Zelazny called them the “accelerationists.” But the name was not applied to the movement until much more recently when it was so christened by Benjamin Noys in his 2013 work Malign Velocities: Accelerationism and Capitalism.
In today’s world, the work of futurist writer Ray Kurzweil and the predications of visionary Yuval Harari intersect the Accelerationist literature in the discussion of the transformation of human life that is coming at us. So how did Accelerationism get out of the salons of Paris and become part of the futurist avant-garde of the English speaking world and even a darling of the Twitterati ? Affaire à suivre, more to come.
In 2016, the State of Maine voted to apply ranked choice voting in congressional and gubernatorial elections and then in 2018 voted to extend this voting process to the allocation of its electoral college votes. Recently, the New York Times ran an editorial calling for the Empire State to consider ranked choice voting; in Massachusetts, there is a drive to collect signatures to have a referendum on this on the 2020 ballot. Ranked choice voting is used effectively in American cities such as Minneapolis and Cambridge and in countries such as Australia and Ireland. So what is it exactly? Mystère.
First let us discuss what it is not. In the UK and the US, elections are decided (with some exceptions) by plurality: the candidate who polls the largest number of votes is the winner even if this is not a majority. Although simple to administer, this can lead to unusual results. By way of example, in Maine in 2010, Republican Paul LePage was elected governor with 38% of the vote. He beat out the Independent candidate who won 36% and the Democratic candidate who won 19%.
One solution to the problems posed by plurality voting is to hold the vote in multiple rounds: if no one wins an absolute majority on the first ballot, then there must be more than two candidates and the candidate with the least votes, Z say, is eliminated and everybody votes again; this time Z’s voters will shift their votes to their second choice among the candidates. If no one gets a majority this time, repeat the process. Eventually, someone has to get a true majority.
Ranked choice voting is also known as instant-runoff voting: it emulates runoff elections but in a single round of balloting. First, if there are only two candidates to begin with, nothing changes – somebody will get a majority. Suppose there are 3 candidates – A, B and Z; then, on the ballot, each voter lists the 3 candidates in the order of that voter’s preference. First, the count is made of the number of first place votes each candidate received; if for one candidate that number is a majority, that candidate wins outright. Otherwise, the candidate with the least number of first place votes, say Z, is eliminated; now we add to A’s first place total the number of ballots that ranked Z first but that listed A as second choice and similarly for B. Now, except in the case of a tie, either A or B will have a clear majority and will be declared the winner. This will give the same result that staging a runoff between A and B would have yielded but in one trip to the voting booth where the voter has to rank the candidates A,B,Z on the ballot rather than choosing only one.
There are other positive side-effects to ranked choice voting. For one thing, voter turnout goes up; another thing is that campaigns are less nasty and partisan – you want your opponents’ supporters to list you second on their ballots! One can also see how this voting system makes good sense for primaries where there are often multiple candidates; for example, with the current Democratic field of presidential candidates, ranked choice voting would give the voter a chance to express his or her opinion and rank a marginal candidate with good ideas first without throwing that vote away.
After the 2010 debacle in Maine (LePage proved a most divisive and most unpopular governor), the Downeasters switched to ranked choice voting. In 2016 in one congressional district, no candidate for the House of Representatives gathered an absolute majority on the first round but a different candidate who received fewer first place votes on that first round won on the second round when he caught up and surged ahead because of the number of voters who made him their second choice. Naturally, all this was challenged by the losing side but they lost in court. For elections, the U.S. Constitution leaves implementation to the states for them to carry out in the manner they deem fit – subject to Congressional oversight but not to judiciary oversight. Per Section 4 of Article 1: “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, …”
Ranked voting systems are not new and have been a serious topic of interest to social scientists and mathematicians for a long time now – there is something mathematically elegant about the way you can simulate a sequence of runoffs in one ballot. Among them, there are the 18th Century French Enlightenment thinker, the Marquis de Condorcet, and the 19th Century English mathematician, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, author of Dodgson’s Method for analyzing election results. More recently, there was the work of 20th Century mathematical economist Kenneth Arrow. For this and other efforts, Arrow was awarded a Nobel Prize; Condorcet had a street named for him in Paris; however, Dodgson had to take the pen name Lewis Carroll and then proceed to write Alice in Wonderland to rescue himself from the obscurity that usually awaits mathematicians.