Monday 2 May 2016

For Accelerationism

What does radical politics in the 21st century look like?

The internet has projected onto a wider canvas a rerun of America's culture wars. Partying hard since the late 1980s, postmodern self-theorised subject positions face off against self-theorised subject positions in battles for recognition and cultural space vis a vis each other rather than those who hold economic and political power. Related to this is the resurgence of a radically-tinged liberal feminism, a movement so varied and inchoate that prominent activists can challenge sexism and male violence one day, and collect a gong the next. Sitting uneasily with the 'new' feminism is a fast-gaining trans-insurgency around cultural acceptance, against violence by men (again), and access to responsive health care. The new politics of race and lesbian and gay equality are now so utterly mainstream that conservative governments can champion same sex marriage. That is, unless one is a Muslim.

On the environmentalist spectrum, key tenets of green thought have been adopted by radical politics. These include the environmental consequences of capitalism, the critique of economic growth, a concern for biodoversity, and the acceptance of climate science twinned with scepticism towards science and claims of progress. All too often, the critique of capitalism is subsumed in a rage against technologically advanced society itself, and finds expression away from mainstream greenism in back-to-the-land primitivism and refusenik communities cut adrift from history.

Traditional revolutionary leftism is still around, if you know where to look. In the British case, the groups laying claim to the mantle of Marx and Lenin have long abandoned the struggle to organise the mass of working people as a political party (if they ever did). They instead pursue a species of postmodern identity politics. Resting on an immaculately shaped grouping of no social weight, they appeal nostalgically to a working class that hasn't existed since the mid-1970s, or intervene in an amorphous "movement" with all the subtlety of a Ken Livingstone debating Israel, and repel those they seek to attract.

The distinctly untrendy bread and butter politics, which never went away, come and go, albeit now with more input from 'social movement trade unionism'. Manifesting in campaigns to defend public services, to resist gentrification, to protest the strip mining of the welfare state, and the taking of industrial action, the subterranean struggle of people upon whom the media gaze seldom falls bubbles up always and everywhere, but tends toward the episodic and sectional, drawing in only the immediately-affected. The trace each campaign leaves, whether successful or not, activates only a small minority for wider politics.

And now social democracy, or at least parts of it are undergoing radicalisation. Having ditched political principle for colourless managerialism, centre left parties across the West have lost out to populist right wing surges, and are now facing leftist challenges from within. This return of the repressed however is not matched, at least yet, by shifts in wider movements at large. It is a recomposition within an existing tendency overlapping all of the above. This includes existing party and labour movement activists, and a section of its passive support. As the institutional and constituency bases of social democracy and labourism corrode, the new leftism is a body shock realisation that it faces disintegration. By identifying its key drivers - neoliberal capital, government-enforced austerity, galloping inequality, and the political abandonment of our people - old warhorses like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders speak to anxieties provoked by a shifting and destabilising position and have proved in spectacular fashion that it can mobilise. Meanwhile, the old masters of the social democratic universe are left scratching their heads. Cocooned by parliaments, cushioned by the media, and swaddled by self-importance, they never saw the insurgency coming, and its that lack of foresight that condemns them to the political wilderness. Yet the question remains, as a product of decline, can a partially radicalised centre left arrest the decline?

This is, more or less, how it stands, and all are variously networked and bound by the here today gone tomorrow connectivity of social media. But how might a 21st century radicalism look like? I think it should look like Accelerationism.

As with all trends and movements, a lot of crap has been written about accelerationism. Some see it as the creed of Spiked/the RCP and its cadre of professional contrarians, a tendency that fetishises technology as is and pushes for its fullest development for the benefits to trickle down. Where have we heard that one before? Others, with a touch more naivete and without tedious opinion pieces to sell, lapse into a 19th century inevitablism, that somehow the new society will spring automatically from space telescopes and nuclear reactors. As an adulation of the technical, a celebration of the speeding up and compression of social life, the worship of the accomplished fact is no foundation for the radical: it is a mere affirmation of what is.

The accelerationist does not submit to the world but probes, analyses, asks questions, identifies trends, and strives to make concrete all progressive potentials. The object of accelerationism is not the digital trinketisation of social life, but social life itself. It stands for the ruthless criticism of all that exists not because it's fun, and/or allows one to pass as superficially radical, but to change the world. It eschews utopianism because the material conditions for everyone to live freely and deeply already exist. The job of accelerationist politics is to accelerate the human potentials capitalism has cultivated and realise the epoch of freedom that lies within our reach.

Yet as a politics accelerationism is a potential too. Its clearest and earliest expression was in the works of Marx and Engels, and as their insights have diffused, fragmented, and become vulgarised and embedded. Particulates of accelerationism are scattered over established radical politics and manifest partially and unevenly. Yet the core relationships identified and critiqued by classical Marxism have conformed to the prognoses declared 150 years ago: the more they change, the more they stay the same. Accelerationism is fortunate in the sense that while other forms of radical politics desperately seek a subject, its potential constituency of billions of propertyless wage and salary earners, the very people who labour, who think, who create this world have never been greater in number, been as inclusive of all social categories, nor wielded as much social power. In as far as established radicalisms tap into, express, and organise these interests, the task of the accelerationist is to be there and accelerate things by dealing with the politics as they express themselves. There is no time to be dazzled by illusion, especially those we conjure ourselves.

Accelerationism's ambitions are vaulting. It is not a fringe pursuit, but the distillation of really-existing trends that point beyond capitalism's antiquated limits. As such, accelerationism cannot help but be the avant garde of the avant garde. It demands to be a movement of movements, of the conscious activity of the immense majority acting for the immense majority. Therefore accelerationism is a synthesis. It imbibes the best and discards everything that is rotten about existing radicalism. It valorises the human, celebrating our capacity to think, to feel, to love, and to create. It has no time for misanthropic miserablism nor romantic rubbish that sees positivity in the poverty of ages past. It is resolutely anti-capitalist, though not averse to using capitalism against itself and bourgeois interests. And most of all, accelerationism stands for a better life for everybody, a world in which the scars of want are banished, where alienating work is done, and the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. It is everything that is best about technologically advanced civilisation, and then some.

The challenges this century is stacking up are terrifying, and left unchecked spell doom and ruination for billions. The despoliation of the environment and climate change don't just threaten standards of living: they put into question the possibility of living. Yet it doesn't have to be this way. Dealing with our problems is not beyond our ability, but they cannot be seriously addressed for as long as capitalism holds us back. If our species is to enter the 22nd century in better shape than it did the 21st, accelerationism, the politics of potential and promise, has to succeed.


Ken said...

Steady on, old chap.

Your account of the dwindling of the far left's ambitions to identity politics hits the spot. But rhetoric prescient of Accelerationism has been around for decades, usually influenced by Situationism. In the late 90s we had the splendid rant 'Two Hundred Pharoahs, Five Billion Slaves'. You can trace this thinnest of red threads in 'Non-Market Socialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries' edited by Maximilien Rubel (no less!) and John Crump.

It hasn't availed much, and until it gets beyond the writing of splendid rants it never will.

So - what is to be done?

BCFG said...

“All too often, the critique of capitalism is subsumed in a rage against technologically advanced society itself, and finds expression away from mainstream greenism in back-to-the-land primitivism and refusenik communities cut adrift from history”

It actually comes from the available scientific evidence, i.e. climate change science. The impact of capitalist relations on planet Earth are clear and also the impact of technological advancement on planet Earth, i.e. increased production and the tendency to reproduce things before they their sell buy date. E.g. computers and TV’s becoming obsolete almost as soon as they are out of the box. The other capitalist compulsion is to condition people to want the latest of everything and also capitalism does not allow a bottom up decision on what gets produced.

There are scientific calculations that work out what resources would be required if everyone on the planet were to have the same standard of living as the average citizen of the USA and the numbers do not add up.

You are denying the science and sticking your progressivist head in the sand, only your arse is showing. So it is actually people like you who are in a rage at science for pointing out that your teleological utopian dogma is not sustainable. Marx called people like your progressivist fundamentalists.

Decents are always quoting science when justifying the carpet bombing of some enemy of US imperialism, but conveniently bin it when it suits.

Back in your face decents!

I do think we live in a post modern world, at least in the West. The supremacy of the West, in economic terms has led to a post modern politics where class struggle does not exist but the struggle of the individual is promoted and counterpoised against collective struggle. The irony is that the available science is telling us collective action is an urgent priority and that post modern individualism will take us to disaster.

The irrational is all too real.

Andrew Curry said...

"It eschews utopianism because the material conditions for everyone to live freely and deeply already exist." Yes, the material conditions exist, but not the ideological or institutional conditions--which are more usually the subject of utopian thinking. Indeed, if we accept Ruth Levitas' formulation (after Abensour) that utopianism is about the education of desire, then accelerationists should embrace utopian ideas.

Kevin Carson said...

I am equally irritated by the accelerationist tendency (Phil) to equate localism and small-scale production with hippy-dippy technophobia, and the primitivist tendency (BCFG) to equate sustainability and reduced ecological footprints with low-tech. Both tendencies ignore the ephemeralizing tendencies of high technology, as well as the potential for integrating advanced production technologies into a Kropotkinian agro-industrial village economy of micro-manufacturing and organic horticulture incorporating the latest scientific knowledge.