Accelerationism I

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.

One thought on “Accelerationism I

  1. Ken, I just read about 60% of above post — it’s too long to hold my interest, I’m afraid, and I believe I am an unusual blog reader in the sense that I read quite a lot and don’t mind historical references. But I do have my breaking point. I came to your blog because I read your note about your bio for Reflections 2020. I urged the bio person to be sure to see that your blog address is included in the bio. I write a couple of blogs which would be of no interest whatsoever to you so I won’t bother with the addresses.
    As editor of Reflections and long involved in various areas of literature, I urge you to be more concise or to divide a post like the above into a couple of days’ posting.

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