Friday, 11 June 2021

In Praise of Deceleration

Accelerationism comes in two flavours. The first, most commonly associated with the term is what we might call inhuman acceleration. This isn't necessarily a value judgement, though it often involves bad things. This is the acceleration of the characteristics of capitalism to their extremes. Privatise the health service? Why not privatise everything. Patents on life forms? Why not patent human bodies. Bring on the clones! A disassembling Labour Party? Then disassemble it some more. It's about ramping up the speeds of capitalism's velocities with certain political ends in mind, which have left and right varieties. For the left accelerationism pushing toward breakdown brings capitalism's antagonisms and class character out into the open, a simplifying of the bewildering machine which will make it easier to smash. For the right it's shoving the social in the direction of nightmare futures of decay, climate collapse, and technological singularity, which are the best conditions for reasserting hierarchy, authoritarianism, and allowing Darwinism to do its worst. A species-wide character building exercise at the price of hundreds of millions, if not billions of deaths and a society barely worth living in. No thanks.

Then there is the Accelerationism of human potentials. This is a politics immanent to capitalism and its expanse of class struggle. It is of fighting encroachments of commodification and the state, of taking capital on in the workplace and the street, of winding through the fused spaces of online/offline, battling in culture wars, taking positions and holding them and always, always pushing the envelope of the possible. Its standpoint is against capital and its exploitation of our bodies and our souls, and for affirming life against the necessity wage labour. It's a politics of what might be versus a deadening existence of expenditure and waste. It struggles, it dreams of shaking off the chains of social obligation and economic necessity, and looks for those points where the primacy of living labour can be asserted against the phantasmatic dead labour of capital. When it finds them, it accelerates capacities outside of capital's capture in new ways of living, new ways of communing and belonging, it builds on the sum totals of human knowledge to anticipate societies beyond capitalism. Imagining the future is everywhere and always imagining a life lived differently. This species of accelerationism is not a counsel of despair unlike its inhuman counterparts, but a valorisation of our collective powers and it is this, these particulates of resistance and potential that any accelerationism worthy of the name disseminates. Its velocity is not an arrow pointing forward in time, but horizontal, flat, a wave of ever extending momentum. It never crashes, but like a tsunami it washes in and keeps on coming, sweeping capitalism before it.

But what's this, a third form of accelerationism? And one predating Nick Land's sojourn at Warwick's philosophy department by about a century. That is the accelerationism of impatience, or of the voluntarism that has proven as immanent to revolutionary politics as class struggle is to capitalism. Can we describe it as accelerationism? Sure. Just as macro/molar/Landian accelerationism is concerned with strapping rocket boosters to, for want of a better phrase, the "objective" tendencies and flows of capitalism pointing to its dissolution, the old or the first acceleration was a speeding up of politics by bypassing it completely. The most famous example was the infamous "third period" of Stalinism, of the declaration of social democratic parties as "social fascist" to be struggled against with a vigour equal to, if not surpassing that reserved for the existential menaces of mass fascist movements. The attempt to overcome the influence of larger rivals in interwar labour movements was not by making common cause against a common foe, but in the belief communist forces, sometimes quite meagre as per the still born CPGB here, could overcome disadvantage by stepping up activism and short circuiting the process of building class consciousness. Tragedy and farce, this has been repeated uncounted times by Trotskyist and Maoist groups since, as if one more paper sale, one more demo would turn the wheel and the masses wake up. Interestingly, Lenin himself - their alleged inspiration - set his face against the politics of bypass. In the 21st century it assumes new forms, and is typical of the alienation peculiar to the fusion of class and identity politics. Unlike the political subjectivities of openness, connectivity, and possibility pushed by the accelerationism of human or, if you prefer, molecular potentials, voluntarism rebooted is founded on closed subjectivities. This is identity as a bounded location, one shut off and policed. It generates a recursive universe, a lifeworld filled with certainties as long as the real world is kept at bay. By forswearing the outside, its acceleration enacts a double movement: a formal declaration of forward everywhere at all times. And, perversely, a complete loss of momentum. It flounders, lacks purchase, refuses to go anywhere. It's stuck. We see this in trade union elections where only the most left wing candidate will do, even if it means letting in the right. We see it in elections, in the raising of political demands, in the constant churn of internecine struggle and backbiting among those giddy with the speed at which they tear around around the closed circuits voluntarism sets up.

Because the production of subjectivities is simultaneously a vector of capital accumulation, the open apparatuses of regulation and control, and resistance to capital, the state, and the subjectivities it foists on us, voluntarism and its ironic negation of possibility is a temptation and a tendency molecular accelerationism must be alive to. Seminars and sermons on neoliberal identity, of samizdatting sophisticated theory will only ever go so far. Indeed, taking measures to mark off the voluntarist folly and holding out the hope of innoculation runs the risk of making it more, not less likely. Perhaps what might help is a more modest politics? One cannot escape the layers of history and inequality our fleshy bodies carry about them, but perhaps we can think more about how we invest our energies. What is gained, for example, by identifying with and reinforcing an identification with a politician, a party, or a set of policies and/or theoretical positions? That is going beyond solidarity, which is absolutely crucial to accelerationist politics, emptying the object of the relations that place them in the context of the movement and the struggle and instead pouring in self-identification? Perhaps a modest politics has to be a touch more instrumental, a bit more conditional. It also has to be a politics that is active, collective, and necessarily pragmatic. As old Timpanaro reminds us in his rehabilitation of Engels, the power of movement is constrained. All things at all times are not possible, and his advice for the Marxists of the 1970s was to pay attention to "passivity", of how the material contexts of politics always matter. They cannot be wished away.

In other words, a truly useful accelerationism needs an ethic of deceleration. Multiplying the potentials for new life is also about thinking through how this can be sustained, and in ways that empowers, politicises, builds solidarities and collective institutions, and this often means slowing down, taking stock, consolidating, thinking. Deceleration is understanding the world is never always open, and that our efforts, our attempts to accelerate the coming of the new society are, have to be, strategic.

What deceleration isn't is decelerationism. This is the very opposite of what we want to achieve. Decelerationism is bourgeois politics, and its raison d'etre is to make sure the flows and dynamics of capital do not trespass its speed limit. Capital, commodities, workers, their movements and velocities are fine as long as labour keeps meeting capital and producing surplus value, without excess spilling over into oppositional collective consciousness and leftist politics. They are all containers. Conservative politics suggest we live in the best possible world, and radical attempts to improve it lead to ruin. Liberalism and the reformist (or rather, technocratic) permutations of social democracy, labourism, and official communism say we also live in the best possible world, except for. Decelerationism, like its seeming antipode voluntarism, also cannot be screened out. Molecular accelerationism as it goes about its work has to make its case and continually make its case to the point it becomes spontaneous common sense. We're at the stage now where decelerationism and its slow flows are where we need to be. And getting there isn't just about putting one's foot down and rushing forward. No journey is completed without its necessary decelerations.

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Anonymous said...

Another science fiction reference, I'm afraid. Ken McLeod's Corporation Wars trilogy is in part about the conflict between the Accelerationists and the Reactionaries. I always found the Accelerationists (who are McLeod's heroes) a bit implausible and it's interesting to learn from you that there's a serious political ideology underlying it.It's also interesting that, if your analysis is right, McLeod's two sides are actually fighting for the same cause . . .

Anonymous said...

wow, a lot of faux radicalism in the first few paragraphs, and then bam, your justification for being mired in bourgeois politics and sticking with the Thatcherite New Labour project.

In fact this article is a good example of the very worst sort of 'intellectualism', Marx and Einstein being examples of the best sort.

Phil said...

Had to chuckle at this comment. Go read some Lenin and perhaps learn a thing or two.

Phil said...

Ken does occasionally drop in around these parts. He's a keen observer and follower of radical social theory - as you might have guessed!

Ken said...

I missed this post until it was linked to in a later one. Yes, The Corporation Wars trilogy does draw on what I learned about accelerationism and neoreaction when I stumbled across them online a year or two before they were famous.

But if anyone thinks the Acceleration (in the novels) are my heroes, I have to disagree. Some of them are sympathetic POV characters, and of course I would hope readers side with them against the dead space nazis, but they're still monsters. The real heroes of the novels are the robots!