Accelerationism II

Accelerationism is a philosophical movement that emerged from the work of late 20th century disillusioned Marxist-oriented French philosophers who were confronted with the realization that capitalism cannot be controlled by current political institutions nor supplanted by the long awaited revolution: for centuries now, the driving force of modernity has been capitalism, the take-no-prisoners social-economic system that produces ever faster technological progress with dramatic physical and social side-effects – the individual is disoriented; social structure is weakened; the present yields constantly to the onrushing future; “the center cannot hold.” However, for the accelerationists, the response is not to slow things down to return to a pre-capitalist past but rather to push capitalism to quicken the pace of progress so a technological singularity can be reached, one where machine intelligence surpasses human intelligence and begins to spark its own development and that of everything else; it will do this at machine speed as opposed to the clumsy pace of development today. This goal will not be reached if human events or natural disasters dictate otherwise, speed is of the essence.

Nick Land, then a lecturer in Continental Philosophy at the University of Warwick in the UK picked up on the work in France and published an accelerationist landmark in 1992, The Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism. Land builds on work of the French eroticist writer Georges Bataille and emphasizes that Accelerationism does not necessarily predict a “happy ending” for humanity: all is proceeding nihilistically, without direction or value, humanity can be but a cog in a planetary process of Spaceship Earth. Accelerationism is different from Marxism, Adventism, Mormonism, Futurism – all optimistic forward-looking world views.

Land pushed beyond the boundaries of academic life and methodology. In 1995, he and colleague Sadie Plant founded the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU) which became an intellectual warren of forward thinking young people – exploring themes such as “cyberfeminism” and “libidinal-materialist Deleuzian thinking.” Though disbanded by 2003, alums of the group have stayed the course and publish regularly in the present day accelerationist literature. In fact, a collection of writings of Land himself has been published under the title Fanged Noumena and today, from his aerie in Shanghai, he comments on things via Twitter. (In Kant’s philosophy noumena as opposed to phenomena are the underlying essences of things that the human mind does not have direct access to.)

Accelerationists have much in common with the Futurist movement: they expect the convergence of computer technology and medicine to bring us into the “bionic age” where a physical merge of man and robot can begin with chip-implantation, gene manipulation and much more. Their literature of choice is dystopian science-fiction, particularly the cyberpunk subgenre: William Gibson’s pioneering Neuromancer has the status of scripture; Rudy Rucker’s thoughtful The Ware Tetralogy is required reading and Richard Morgan’s ferocious Market Forces is considered a minor masterpiece.

Accelerationism is composed today of multiple branches.

Unconditional Accelerationism (aka U/Acc) is the most free-form, the most indifferent to politics. It celebrates modernity and the wild ride we are on. It tempers its nihilism with a certain philosophical playfulness and its mantra, if it had one, would be “do your own thing”!

Left Accelerationism (aka L/Acc) harkens back to Marx as precursor: indeed, Marx did not call for a return to the past but rather claimed that capitalism had to move society further along until it had created the tools – scientific, industrial, organizational – needed for the new centralized communist economy. Even Lenin wrote (in his 1918 text “Left Wing” Childishness)

    Socialism is inconceivable without large-scale capitalist engineering based on the latest discoveries of modern science.

So Lenin certainly realized that Holy Russia was nowhere near the level of industrialization and organization necessary for a Marxist revolution in 1917 but plunge ahead he did. Maybe that venerable conspiracy theory where Lenin was transported back to Russia from Switzerland by the Germans in order to get the Russians out of WW I has some truth to it! Indeed, Lenin was calling for an end to the war even before returning; with the October Revolution and still in the month of October, Lenin proposed an immediate withdrawal of Russia from the war which was followed by an armistice the next month between Soviet Russia and the Central Powers. All this freed up German and Austrian men and resources for the Western Front.

An important contribution to L/Acc is the paper of Alex Williams and Nick Srinek (Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics, 2013) in which they argue that “accelerationist politics seeks to preserve the gains of late capitalism while going further than its value system, governance structures, and mass pathologies will allow.” Challenging the conceit that capitalism is the only system able to generate technological change at a fast enough speed, they write “Our technological development is being suppressed by capitalism, as much as it has been unleashed. Accelerationism is the basic belief that these capacities can and should be let loose by moving beyond the limitations imposed by capitalist society.” They dare to boldly go beyond earthbound considerations asserting that capitalism is not able to realize the opening provided by space travel nor can it pursue “the quest of Homo Sapiens towards expansion beyond the limitations of the earth and our immediate bodily forms.” The Left accelerationists want politics and the acceleration, both, to be liberated from capitalism.

Right Accelerationism (aka R/Acc) can claim Nick Land as one of its own – he dismisses L/Acc as warmed over socialism. In his frank, libertarian essay, The Dark Enlightenment (click HERE), Land broaches the difficult subject of Human Bio-Diversity (HBD) with its grim interest in biological differences among human population groups and potential eugenic implications. But Land’s interest is not frivolous and he is dealing with issues that will have to be encountered as biology, medicine and technology continue to merge and as the cost of bionic enhancements drives a wedge between social classes and racial groups.

This interest of the accelerationists in capitalism brings up a “chicken or egg” problem: Which comes first – democratic political institutions or free market capitalism?

People (among them the L/Acc) would likely say that democracy has been necessary for capitalism to develop, having in mind the Holland of the Dutch Republic with its Tulip Bubble, the England of the Glorious Revolution of 1689 which established the power of parliament over the purse, the US of the Founding Fathers. However, 20th Century conservative thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman argued that free markets are a necessary precondition for democracy. Indeed, the case can be made that even the democracy of Athens and other Greek city states was made possible by the invention of gold coins by the neighboring Lydians of Midas and Croesus fame: currency led to a democratic society built around the agora/marketplace and commerce rather than the palace and tribute.

In The Dark Enlightenment, Land also pushes the thinking of Hayek and Friedman further and argues that democracy is a parasite on capitalism: with time, democratic government contributes to an ever growing and ever more corrupt state apparatus which is inimical to capitalism and its accelerationist mission. In fact, Land and other accelerationists put forth the thesis that societies like China and Singapore provide a better platform for the acceleration required of late capitalism: getting politics out of everyday life is liberating – if the state is well run and essential services are provided efficiently, citizens are free to go about the important business of life.

An historical example of capitalism in autocratic societies is provided by the German and Austro-Hungarian empires of the half century leading up to WWI: it was in this world that the link was made between basic scientific research (notably at universities) and industrial development that continues to be a critical source of new technologies (the internet is an example). In this period, the modern chemical and pharmaceutical industries were created (Bayer aspirin and all that); the automobile was pioneered by Karl Benz’ internal combustion engine and steam power was challenged by Rudolf Diesel’s compression-ignition engine. Add the mathematics (Cantor and new infinities, Riemann and new geometries), physics (Hertz and radio waves, Planck and quantum mechanics, Einstein and relativity), the early Nobel prizes in medicine garnered by Koch and Ehrlich (two heroes of Paul De Kruif’s classic book Microbe Hunters), the triumphant music (Brahms, Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler). Certainly this was a golden age for progress, an example of how capitalism and technology can thrive in autocratic societies.

Starkly, we are now in a situation reminiscent of the first quarter of the 20th Century – two branches of capitalism in conflict, the one led by liberal democracies, the other by autocratic states (this time China and Singapore instead of Germany and Austria). For Land and his school, the question is which model of capitalism is better positioned to further the acceleration; for them and the rest of us, the question is how to avoid a replay of the Guns of August 1914, all the pieces being ominously in place.

2 thoughts on “Accelerationism II

  1. A famous interchange between God and St. Catherine of Sienna is said to have gone something like this: In the Dialogue God the Father says to Catherine: “Do you know daughter, who you are and who I am? If you know these two things you have beatitude in your grasp. You are she who is not, I AM HE WHO IS.” Bottom line? He is God, we are not. We keep forgetting that.

    This whole attempt to reach some singularity and a man-made perfection of himself via technology, following which we have some utopia, is naught but a silicon +/-bioengineering update of Eden’s serpent’s promise to Eve. No bueno.

    We may have been made in His image, but it is a child’s-sketch likeness of Him we keep thinking is a perfect rendering. Not.

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